Opinion » Maxed Out

The war is over, but the body count climbs



Teruo Nakamura's great war ended in December 1974.

Stationed on the Indonesian island of Morotai, Mr. Nakamura was the last documented Japanese soldier, albeit himself Taiwanese, to finally be convinced the Second World War was over...and had been for nearly three decades.

Mr. Nakamura could teach the Government of Canada—and many of the countries that like to think of themselves as civilized—a thing or two about fighting a war already lost. In this case, the war on drugs.

Earth to Ottawa: The war is over. Drugs won!

Montreal gets it. So do Toronto and Vancouver. So too, in fact, does the rank and file of the federal Liberal Party, who voted recently to support decriminalization. All have called on the federal government to end the lost war and start treating drug use as a public health issue, not a criminal/moral issue.

Last month, Toronto's chief medical officer called on the Toronto Board of Health to urge the feds to decriminalize possession and use of all drugs as an "evidence-based" first step towards ultimate legalization. Ottawa's response was swift. A spokesperson for federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Ottawa was not looking to decriminalize or legalize any drugs other than cannabis.

How does that square with the upcoming legalization of recreational cannabis? It doesn't. The same arguments supporting that move apply with equal—and probably greater—force to the drugs that actually kill people.

It does square, however, with the federal election next year, an election in which the Liberals have absolutely no interest in carrying the banner of decriminalization against the strident, moralistic cheerleading for continuing the war on drugs the Conservatives continue to parrot.

So die on, junkies, die on. Die on, you casual users of street drugs. What's one more dead cokehead, more or less? The message from your government is this: We "understand the stigma and barriers to treatment need to be reduced...." Oh, and here's a couple more millions for Naloxone. Good luck as you die in the streets hoping someone doesn't think you're just another drunk.

Ottawa, or in its vacuum of leadership on the issue, the provinces, should start a new lottery: guess the number of overdoses in your province this coming cheque week. A 50-50 draw with the government's take going toward more Naloxone.

On Friday, July 27, one month ago, it was reported that paramedics in B.C. responded to 130 overdose calls. It wasn't a one-day record but it tied the old record set in April last year. The spike in ODs corresponded to the receipt of monthly welfare cheques. Cheques come out next week. Too late for a lottery this month...but there's always next.

Almost 4,000 Canadians died of apparent opioid overdose last year. Maybe we can start a pool on this year. Will we break the old record? Chances are good.

Now if the idea of a lottery or pool seems, shall we say, insensitive, it pales in comparison to the government's response, which pretty much amounts to doing what we've been doing but with more money flushed down the rathole of sensitive, caring PR.

In addition to all the hundreds of millions wasted on law enforcement and incarceration, we can now add all the millions squandered by first responders, emergency rooms and widely distributed Naloxone kits. All that money is being spent to keep drugs illegal, keep people who use drugs seen as something less than human, and keep politicians from actually dealing with a problem now old enough to collect CPP.

What was the cost to British Columbia's provincial and municipal governments of having first responders called out 130 times in one day? How many people suffering medical emergencies not related to drug overdoses had to wait longer that Friday because so many emergency personnel were tied up bringing the near-dead back to life? How many deaths—direct and collateral—will it take before Canada's government figures out what it took Mr. Nakamura 30 years to discover?

Sadly, I suspect the answer involves a lot more money squandered and many more lives lost and ruined.

Lest I be accused of being a knee-jerk bleeding heart, make no mistake—I'm not. If the government wants to let drug users die in the streets and in their homes, I'm not sure I personally care. Seems stupid to me, but I'm pretty inured to both stupid government tricks and drug users dying. But if that's the strategy, and it seems implicitly to be, stop wasting money that could be put to better use.

It's not like there isn't a solution—or, if not a solution, at least a better way. Prior to 2001, Portugal was a poster child for heroin culture. One in 100 Portuguese was reportedly addicted to heroin. At that rate, no country on Earth can build enough prisons or hire enough cops if they want to wage a war on drugs.

So Portugal didn't. They decriminalized the use and possession of all drugs. All drugs. They decided to treat possession and use as a public health issue. They didn't legalize drugs. But they swapped imprisoning and hanging a criminal record on people for handing out small fines and referrals to treatment.

Drug use soared, just as the hard line drug warriors predicted. Just kidding. Drug use declined precipitously. Like a stone in water. Portugal now boasts nearly the lowest number of drug-induced deaths of any country. The statistics available a couple of years ago posted Portugal's drug-related death rate at three per one million population. Even the forward-thinking socialist paradises of Norway and Sweden rack up 60 or so annual deaths per million.

Collateral benefits include less crime, dramatically lower HIV infections and the downstream, long-term health implications that follow, a decline in the use of synthetic drugs and, of course, savings on enforcement and incarceration. And, importantly, a change of attitude, a cultural shift if you will. Drug users, formerly "junkies" became, instead, people. People who use drugs. People with addiction disorders. People not unlike the rest of the people and people deserving treatment, not oppression.

But Canada, the Canadian government, still can't bring itself—ourselves—around to seeing drug users as people. We continue to see them as a problem, as vermin. We call on police and jailers instead of exterminators but, really, the difference is only one of degree.

I thought, perhaps naively, once businessmen, lawyers, engineers, doctors and other people started dropping dead from fentanyl in their weekend snort of coke, Canada might start viewing the war on drugs for what it is: pointless. Instead, they doubled down on illegality and tossed in Naloxone to show they weren't entirely heartless. Silly me.

Justin, take it from Mr. Nakamura—the war is over. Time to end the body count.