The issue of providing a safe and clean environment to drug users has long been part of an approach to drug policy that prioritizes public health. With the city of Vancouver reaching 13 years with an active supervised injection site (SIS), many more municipalities across Canada are now vying their options, leading way to a mind shift in how they deal with drugs and with their socio-economic consequences. Toronto and Ottawa having recently debated the idea, the issue of safe injection sites reveals a crossroad in which we must choose the direction the country takes in relation to drug policy. This contrast involves deciding between viewing drug addiction as either a public health issue or a law enforcement issue.
For many years Canada has followed the United States in their drug policies, prioritizing prohibition, strong enforcement and criminalization of users. Despite these strong initiatives, drug use in Canada has not been curtailed and the effects on both user and society have worsened. This stems from the fact that “tough on crime” and “drug war” legislation focuses on curtailing the distribution and consumption of illicit substances in a very inelastic market. By arresting drug users for possession and making it harder to traffic, legislators hope to discourage drug use through a law enforcement approach. The failure of the state takes root in the fact that market inelasticity makes it very difficult for law enforcement to “convince” the public through criminal consequences that it is not worth trafficking and consuming drugs. Drug addicts who are both psychologically and physiologically addicted to an illicit substance do not respond to negative reinforcement and as long as demand remains constant, the supply will be met by black market mechanisms looking to profit. Additionally, by making drug trafficking riskier through tougher law enforcement, legislators inadvertently hyper inflate drug prices during crackdowns. This is done due to both the increased risk involved in production and trafficking and to the drop in supply due to seizures by law enforcement, a phenomenon known as the “addiction surplus”.
This failed law enforcement approach to drug policy demands a new perspective. The best way to combat the phenomenon of “addiction surplus” resides in focusing on the drug users and on attempting to eliminate the inelastic demand through social care. The precedent created by the city of Vancouver for safe injection sites is important in shifting our attitude towards public health issues, because it does exactly this: it puts the user at the forefront of the solution, prioritizing aid in the form of clean needles, therapy and “harm reduction”, instead of criminalizing the user. This crucial first step in transitioning towards a public health approach is supported by great success in Vancouver, with overdose, usage and HIV/Hepatitis rates steadily dropping since the inception of the supervised injection site. This approach is painfully needed in two cities that have seen overdose deaths and HIV spikes in recent years, Toronto and Ottawa. The problem has even had Toronto’s top medical officer decry a “significant health issue”.
The importance of safe injection sites in Canada lies in the fact that they highlight a change in attitude towards drug policy. A shift from the law enforcement approach to a public health approach will be more successful in dealing with the phenomenon of “addiction surplus” and the ill effects that accompany both drug trafficking and consumption. By opening safe injection sites in Toronto and Ottawa, we can take the first step in changing the way we see the problem of drug addiction and help remedy the shortfalls of the past approach. This step is badly needed in refreshing a philosophy towards the drug problem that is outdated and ineffective. By bringing in safe injection sites, we can move towards a new perspective that is long overdue.
Photo: urbansnaps – kennymc / Flickr