Drug Detox and Rehab Winning the War On Drugs In Vancouver

Drug Detox and Rehab Winning the War On Drugs In Vancouver

In a Vancouver Sun guest column earlier this week, Philip Owen, the former mayor of Vancouver, Canada, makes a good case for treating illicit substance abusers for their addictions instead of jailing. And he should know: when he took office in 1993 the city was awash in drugs and crime and it was just getting worse. The justice system approach had obviously failed, and a new idea was needed. The only logical alternative was to adopt a new approach stressing prevention, drug detox and drug rehab along with traditional enforcement. In the 1990s, just a little over a decade ago, drug detox and drug rehab facilities were not widely available for the downtown street addicts.

A significant AIDS epidemic was sweeping across the city, HIV and hepatitis C were endemic among injection drug users, there were areas of crushing poverty, and the "low track" street sex trade with a bustling open air street drug market nearby was pushing crime statistics out the roof. In 1996, the city fathers decided to consult addiction and treatment experts around the world. All the research led to the same conclusion: "Those who are addicted," Owen wrote, "are our children, siblings, fathers and mothers who did not choose a life of addiction, illness, crime and eventual early death, they are the victims and they require medical assistance." The question was whether Vancouver should adopt a medical approach to drug addiction that would widely provide drug detox, drug rehab, and other humane measures - a tough decision since most authorities in Canada, particularly the federal government, still favored the crime-and-punishment model. Or, should the city pour more money into the failed "war on drugs." Bravely, the city decided to go its own way. It began in 2001 by adopting new policies to help solve the drug problems that expanded drug detox, drug rehab, and programs to reduce needle-sharing to cut down on the spread of infections.

Great inroads were made, and Canada's third largest city became something of a model in the country, and indeed in the world, with expanded drug rehab and associated services. But politics are politics, and now the city is facing a swing to the old views, fueled at least in part by the federal government's penchant for emulating the U.S., in this case the much-maligned war on drugs. "We are beginning to see the benefits of this approach in lower rates of chronic disease, lower health care costs and longer lives, among other examples." Owen points out in his article. "Now the federal government must take a leadership role in combating drug addiction . . . In the end, it is scientific fact and medical evidence, not rigid political ideology that should guide our public policy decisions." It would be a terrible step backwards to reduce support for Vancouver's accomplishments. In fact, to pull back now could be a death sentence for countless addicts who will never recover their lives doing more jail time. Vancouver needs to keep moving forward, helping rebuild lives through prevention, a good drug detox program, and successful drug rehab.

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