THE BLOG
02/23/2007 01:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Walters' Sugarcoating to Canadians Can't Hide US's Miserable Record on Drug Policy

The U.S. drug czar, John Walters, went to Ottawa yesterday, trying his best to put a positive spin on one of the greatest disasters in U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Part of his agenda is to persuade Canada to follow in U.S. footsteps, which can only happen if Canadians ignore science, compassion, health and human rights.

After years of chastising our neighbors to the north for their approach to drug policy, particularly for growing high quality marijuana and pursuing harm reduction policies to reduce HIV/AIDS and other ills, Walters tried to make nice with the Canadians. His speech was full of platitudes of cooperation and shared national interests, with scant mention of the central role that prison and other coercive sanctions play in U.S. drug policy.

I went to Ottawa yesterday to join with Canadian scholars, activists and law makers - including former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell -- to remind Canadians that Walters' sugarcoating shouldn't obscure the failed realities of US drug policy.

The United States ranks first in the world in per-capita incarceration, with roughly five per cent of the earth's population but 25 per cent of the total incarcerated population. Russia and China simply can't keep up. Among the 2.2 million people behind bars today in the United States, roughly half a million are locked up for drug-law violations, and hundreds of thousands more for other "drug-related" offences. The U.S. "war on drugs" costs at least $40 billion U.S. a year in direct costs, and tens of billions more in indirect costs.

It's all useful information for Canadians to keep in mind when being encouraged to further toughen their drug laws to bring them in line with those of the United States.

Drug-policy reformers in the United States have been cheered by Canada's willingness -- at least until now -- to look to Europe rather than the United States for drug-control models. When HIV/AIDS started spreading a generation ago among people who inject drugs, both Europe and Canada were quick to implement needle exchanges and other harm-reduction programs, even as the United States opted instead to allow hundreds of thousands to become infected and die needlessly.

Heroin-prescription trials are now underway in Montreal and Vancouver, trying to determine whether what worked so well in Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands and other countries can also work in Canada. The same is true of supervised injection sites, which have proven effective in reducing fatal overdoses, transmission of infectious diseases and drug-related nuisance. And most recently, Vancouver's mayor, Sam Sullivan, has broken new ground by proposing that cocaine and methamphetamine addicts be prescribed legal substitutes.

But I wonder whether Canada just can't help following in U.S. footsteps. DARE survives in Canada too, notwithstanding evidence of its lack of efficacy. Almost three quarters of Canadian federal drug-strategy spending is for law-enforcement initiatives, few of which demonstrate any success in reducing drug problems. "While harm-reduction interventions supported through the drug strategy are being held to an extraordinary standard of proof," the director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Dr. Julio Montaner, recently observed, "those receiving the greatest proportion of funding remain under-evaluated or have already proven to be ineffective."

The survival of Vancouver's supervised-injection facility is currently at risk, for reasons having everything to do with politics and nothing with science or health, while federal drug-enforcement authorities know that all they need to do to preserve funding is make arrests and avoid scandal.

What matters most to U.S. drug czar John Walters, though, is cannabis, which he occasionally, and absurdly, describes as the most dangerous of all drugs. Seventy per cent of Americans say cannabis should be legal for medical purposes, and one study after another points to its efficacy and safety as a medicine. A similar percentage also think personal possession of marijuana should be decriminalized (i.e., resulting in fines rather than arrest and incarceration) and 40 per cent say it should be taxed, controlled and regulated, more or less like alcohol.

But Mr. Walters will have none of it. He travels the country, railing against cannabis and urging schools to drug test all students, without cause -- and without any scientific evidence that testing will work. And when he visits or talks about Canada, it's typically to complain -- erroneously -- that Canada is a major supplier of marijuana for the U.S., never mind the fact that Americans now produce most of the marijuana consumed in the United States.

Canada needs to lead, not follow, the United States when it comes to dealing sensibly with drugs. Mr. Walters's Canadian hosts today should remind him of the 2002 report of the Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, chaired by Conservative Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin.

It's probably the best, most comprehensive, most evidence-based report on drug policy produced by any government in the past 30 years. And its recommendations are all about dealing with drugs as if politics were an afterthought, and all that mattered were reducing the harms associated with both drug use and failed drug policies. Imagine that.