Canada’s Urban Public Health Network Endorses Global Call for Evidence-Based Drug Policy

Medical health officers of Canada’s 18 largest cities support alternatives to the failed war on drugs to meaningfully combat the individual and social harms of illicit drug use

Vancouver, British Columbia (March 28, 2012): The Urban Public Health Network (UPHN), which comprises the chief medical health officers of the 18 largest municipalities in Canada, joins a growing list of Nobel Laureates, former heads of state, academic, political, law enforcement, health and religious leaders who have endorsed the Vienna Declaration since it was first unveiled as the official declaration of the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, in 2010.

Since its launch, the declaration has been signed by more than 23,000 people, including five chief provincial medical health officers, the Canadian Public Health Association, the City of Vancouver, Toronto City Council and Victoria City Council, all calling for an evidence-based drug policy approach in Canada.

“Canada needs to urgently explore policies that treat illicit drug use as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue, to help curb the harms to individuals and communities from drug addiction,” said Dr. Patricia Daly, a UPHN member and medical health officer from Vancouver. “The Urban Public Health Network’s endorsement of the Vienna Declaration is a clear call from Canada’s urban public health community for evidence-based drug policymaking with the aim to improve community health and safety.”

The announcement of the UPHN’s endorsement of the Vienna Declaration comes at a critical time in Canadian drug policy. Although the declaration calls for a “full policy reorientation” stating that “the criminalization of drug users has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences,” the federal government has recently escalated Canada’s war on drugs through the use of mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug law offences.

“Clearly, the Canadian public health community is stressing the need for evidence-based drug policies that will actually improve community health and safety, unlike the failed drug law enforcement tactics that are being enacted by the federal government,” said Dr. Evan Wood, co-director of the Urban Health Research Initiative at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and chair of the Vienna Declaration writing committee. “Tougher sentencing and increased spending on the enforcement of drug prohibition has proven to be a waste of taxpayer dollars, while actually contributing to organized crime and gang violence. It’s time for a new approach.”

Dr. Wood is the co-author of a review paper, Improving community health and safety in Canada through evidence-based policies on illegal drugs published March 28 in Open Medicine, an international, peer-reviewed medical journal. The paper notes that the “criminalization of people who use drugs continues to prove ineffective in reducing rates of drug use and has instead contributed to substantial health-related harms.” It also points out that Canadian drug policy has, since 2007, moved toward a new anti-drug strategy and away from the evidence-based harm reduction programs recommended by the World Health Organization. This despite the fact that several U.S. states⎯including New York, Michigan, Massachusetts and Connecticut⎯are now repealing mandatory minimum legislation for non-violent drug offences like those called for in Bill C-10.

It’s a well-documented fact that the war on drugs has been a dismal failure. There is overwhelming scientific evidence to show that it has failed to achieve its stated objectives of reducing drug supply, reducing rates of drug use and driving up drug prices. In recent decades, the prices of drugs such as cannabis have gone down, they are easy to obtain, and their potency has risen dramatically. The tough-on-crime approach has also led to several unintended harmful consequences, including the enrichment of organized crime, as well as a range of health-related harms. The Vienna Declaration notes that drug law enforcement has fuelled HIV epidemics among incarcerated drug users by driving them away from prevention and care services, and into environments where there is a higher risk of infectious disease transmission.

The Vienna Declaration is a scientific statement seeking to improve community health and safety by calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies. The Vienna Declaration was drafted by an international team of scientists and other experts. It was initiated by the International AIDS Society, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Those wishing to sign on may visit www.viennadeclaration.com, where the full text of the declaration, along with a list of authors, is available. The two-page declaration references 28 reports, describing the scientific evidence documenting the effectiveness of public health approaches to drug policy and the negative consequences of approaches that criminalize drug users.

About the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS

The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) (www.cfenet.ubc.ca) is Canada’s largest HIV/AIDS research, treatment and education facility and is internationally recognized as an innovative world leader in combating HIV/AIDS and related diseases. It is based at St. Paul’s Hospital, Providence Health Care, a teaching hospital of the University of British Columbia. The BC-CfE works in close collaboration with key provincial stakeholders, including health authorities, health care providers, academics from other institutions, and the community to improve the health of British Columbians living with HIV through developing, monitoring and disseminating comprehensive research and treatment programs for HIV and related illnesses.

Urban Public Health Network

The Urban Public Health Network (UPHN) (www.uphn.ca) was established in September 2004 by the Chief Medical Officers of Health of the 18 largest Canadian cities. The purpose of the network is to address public health issues that are common to urban populations and to develop strategies to address these issues. The network is designed to share best practices, advocate for policy changes and to foster and facilitate research in public health. Examples of topics which are being addressed include emergency preparedness, common standardized indicators for public health activity, the provision of tertiary public health services, immunization capacity, poverty and health. Members are working collaboratively with a number of partners to effect changes that will result in healthier communities.

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