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Canada's Addiction to the War on Drugs Has Ugly Side-Effects

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At the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, Harper said: "I think what everyone believes and agrees with, and to be frank myself, is that the current approach is not working, but it is not clear what we should do."

It was a surprising and refreshing admission, coming as it did from Stephen Harper, one of the hemisphere's most committed warriors in support of the war on drugs. Embedded in this admission of failure was a pleading for clarity about what to do next, and how to implement viable and effective solutions to the drug problem. This is why the recent release of the Global Commission on Drug Policy's report, titled "The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS: How the Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global Pandemic" represents such a bombshell for Canada and other nations stuck in the fruitless, endless and self-perpetuating war on drugs.

The commission itself is made up of a who's who of international leaders including former U.S. Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, and the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. Their report represents a damning indictment of the global war on drugs by laying bare its true cost and staggering level of failure.

As the report outlines, support for a global drug war has had a profound impact on the spread of HIV and associated AIDS deaths. In Russia, which has outlawed clinically proven addiction treatment options such as methadone, the number of HIV-positive individuals has soared from close to zero in 1994 to almost one million in 2009.

Not surprisingly, Russia's growing epidemic is concentrated among its increasing number of injection drug users. In Thailand, which sanctioned the extrajudicial killing of Thai drug users in a brutal drug war in 2003 and continues to take a staunchly "tough on crime" approach to drugs, it's estimated that fully 50 per cent of the country's thousands of injection drug users are now HIV-positive.

These horrifying statistics aren't the unfortunate side effects of an otherwise effective program to control drugs, and they're not isolated incidents. Despite deep international commitment to the war on drugs, it has failed on a colossal level. Even as drug enforcement funding has increased over the past two decades, the global drug supply has steadily increased. Meanwhile, countries that are primary consumers of drugs, such as Canada and the United States, have seen drug prices tumble to new lows while drug purity has increased dramatically.

These findings are just the tip of the iceberg. The commission's report carefully illustrates how the drug war has doomed hundreds of thousands to incarceration, persecution, and HIV infection despite its clear failures to affect drug supply. For that reason alone it should be required reading for Prime Minister Harper, as it offers him what he seems to be asking for: a clear set of steps to undo the damage of the failed status quo. And he doesn't have to look far to find solutions. In the report, the commissioners highlight the success of British Columbia, which aggressively advanced a public health approach to tackling drug harm, and as a result has seen the number of new HIV cases among injection drug users drop almost 90 per cent since 1996.

Unfortunately, instead of celebrating this made-in-Canada success, our federal government seems intent on alternately vilifying it and litigating against it while doubling down on a tough-on-crime approach. If these policy failures affected only Canadians, they would be damaging enough. What the commission's report outlines, though, is the way in which policies in drug consumer countries like Canada can devastate other regions.

In the case of Canada and the United States, our addiction to the war on drugs, coupled with an insatiable demand for drugs themselves, has proved a deadly cocktail for those countries unlucky enough to exist along the supply chain. In Mexico, for instance, an all-out drug war has claimed the lives of over 50,000 since its inception in 2006. Rather than stifle drug supply, it appears to have fueled it, as estimates suggest that Mexican heroin production has increased 340 per cent since the drug war was launched. The report clearly shows this is not a Mexican failure but a regional one, and that Canadians should recognize their own government's complicity in supporting enforcement policies that do untold damage far beyond our borders.

Prime Minister Harper's recognition of the futility of Canada's drug policies represents a potential turning point, and he should be supported in seeking a viable alternative to the broken status quo. In this regard, the commission's report provides him with the answers he needs to move towards effective drug policies. Though it confirms some of our worst fears about the impact of the war on drugs, the report also outlines evidence-based ways to overcome them. Let's hope our prime minister finds in it the path forward that he seeks.