Libby Davies: Why compulsory treatment doesn’t work for drug addicts

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I have been involved in the harm reduction movement for many years and have worked with the community to radically change Canadian drug policy laws which have been a colossal failure not only from a health perspective , but also politically and economically. I’ve heard all the arguments over and over again, for compulsory treatment, drug courts, and so Sarah Leamon’s recent article advocating for compulsory treatment regimes in response to the “Vancouver crisis” is not no surprise. But it’s completely false, misleading and based on an entirely false premise.

Here’s why.

First, to say that very little has been done and that Mayor Kennedy Stewart and his supporters have turned a blind eye to the challenges we face is false. The city, under Stewart’s leadership (despite the realities of a restless city council), has consistently led the way in a humane, evidence-based response to the toxic drug market and the unconscionable loss of life from overdoses. .

From the outset, in December 2018, just days in office, Stewart brought together medical and community experts and quickly charted a course to end the overdose crisis. It’s no small feat trying to drastically change federal illicit drug laws and policies – but Stewart did it and won the unanimous support of his council members for a safe supply of drugs and had needed housing funds from all levels of government, and they’ve kept the pressure on ever since.

The city led the charge to force the provincial and federal governments to act – to end the dire situation for people on the streets facing a toxic drug market and a lack of safe housing and necessary life supports. Of course, we’re not there yet – higher-level governments are slow to act – but blaming the city for this is irresponsible and misleading. So let’s try to stick to facts and realities, not political posturing.

Leamon then goes on to advocate for mandatory treatment programs through the court system for “addicted” offenders who are chronic drug users. Here’s what’s wrong with this image. Addiction and proper treatment are health issues, not legal issues. Were we offering chronic cigarette smokers the “choice” between forced treatment or prison? And alcoholics? What about addictive eating disorders – jail time if you don’t stick to this healthy diet?

Of course, those answers would be totally inappropriate and even ridiculous, because culturally we understand that these are complex issues and forcing individuals into treatment or incarceration by “choice” isn’t really a choice. It is nothing more than a flawed, politically created response, rooted in the justice system because certain drugs have been deemed illegal and the users of these drugs are “criminals”. The idea that the justice system will somehow undo the enormous harm and death it has created by the “War on Drugs” is doomed to fail.

Even if the justice system were the appropriate response mechanism, it makes no sense to wait years until a person is severely impaired and considered a chronic repeat offender and then magically offers them the choice between treatment or prison. It’s like saying, it’s only when you’re almost dead and so far away that you get help.

In contrast, harm reduction is based on appropriate interventions EARLY, as few barriers as possible, to keep people safe and alive, so that survival continues, sustain life and, of course, treatment, can be provided. It is based on a human approach that recognizes that each person is unique and needs unique answers. That response would likely involve chronic pain management, a safe supply of medication, and caring for people — not in prison — but in decent, long-term housing.

I remember back in the 1990s drug courts were being peddled as a solution, even by a former NDP attorney general, Ujaal Dosanjh. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.

If nothing else, let’s hear from the real experts – those who deal with the poison drug market every day. They repeatedly said what they needed. It is not a prison sentence or forced treatment. Or just ask anyone who has tried to quit multiple times in their lifetime if their perceived failure warrants incarceration.

So let’s avoid castigating local elected officials who valiantly hold the course to do what is right. Perhaps it is time to put aside the easy judgments and recognize that Vancouver City Council has been a national leader, for many years, and often across partisan lines, for a response based on health and evidence to the drug and housing crisis that is impacting many communities across the country.

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