Mayor Philip Owen bridled when he heard that John Walters, the director of
U.S. national drug control policy, was to visit Vancouver this week.

The outgoing mayor had good reason reason for his concern. While Mr. Walters
was ostensibly in town to discuss B.C.'s massive marijuana industry, which
supplies the U.S. with billions of dollars worth of pot every year,
America's drug czar also managed to scold us for our planned safe-injection
facilities, and to tell us how things ought to be done.

Mr. Walters' address to the Vancouver Board of Trade did have a bright side,
though, as he highlighted the importance of prevention and treatment
programs in remedying the increasingly worrisome drug problem. Given the
inordinate focus on safe-injection sites during the recent civic election
campaigns, Vancouverites can't be reminded too frequently of the importance
of the other pillars in the four-pillar program.

Nevertheless, we come not to praise the American drug czar, but to parse
him. His skulduggery deserves a line-by-line treatment.

Mr. Walters conceded that safe-injection sites might save some lives, but he
said we should "save people from the fatal disease of addiction" instead.

We agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. But Mr. Walters' words sidestep
the issue. Saving people from addiction speaks to prevention, something that
matters not a whit to those already addicted.

He then went on to consider the argument that safe-injection sites help
prevent the spread of hepatitis and HIV. Now listen closely: "The rates of
conversion [infection] in the studies that have been best in these areas
still have many times the number of people converting than those who get
effective treatment."

Got that? Is Mr. Walters claiming that safe-injection sites promote the
transmission of disease? No. Is he saying that the sites fail to reduce HIV
and hepatitis infection? No.

Although he makes it sound like the "best studies" oppose safe injection
facilities, Mr. Walters is really claiming that, when compared in isolation,
treatment is a better avenue than injection sites. And who could argue with
that? The four-pillar approach calls for a combination of safe injecting
sites and treatment, a topic Mr. Walters never broached.

By reorienting the focus toward treatment, the drug czar manages to
extricate himself from any discussion of the efficacy of safe-injection
facilities. So let's play his game for a moment. How are we to get addicts
into treatment?

The U.S. system is heavy on enforcement, with convicted drug offenders
facing jail or mandatory treatment programs. This explains Mr. Walters'
absurd claim that 60 per cent of the drug addicts in the U.S. are addicted
to marijuana and are overcrowding the drug treatment system.

Coralling marijuana "addicts" into treatment is, of course, a tremendous
waste of resources better spent on helping people who have real problems.
Moreover, as anyone who has taken a first-year psychology course can tell
you, mandatory treatment is useless. Addicts must be highly motivated and
willing to work tirelessly at overcoming their addictions, and sometimes
they still fail.

And that's where safe-injection sites come in. The sites often act as
critical points of contact for those motivated to seek treatment, and they
represent a far better option than the U.S. system, which discourages
voluntary treatment by criminalizing the behaviour of substance abusers.

Mr. Walters emphasized that he was not telling Canadians what to do, that he
only wanted to help us avoid the drug problems the U.S. has experienced. Yet
by condemning our innovative attempts to solve the problem, he implicitly
endorsed the American-style war-on-drugs approach. How are we supposed to
avoid American problems if we adopt failed American solutions?

We welcome Mr. Walters' opinions and advice on the drug problem, and we
encourage him to visit us any time. But if he intends to lecture us any
more, then perhaps it would be best if he solves his own country's problems
before meddling in ours.

Pubdate: Friday, November 22, 2002
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)