Q) In your 35 years as an RCMP officer involved in drug enforcement, what are your basic conclusions about Canadian drug policy from an on-the-ground point of view? What is working and what is not working?
A) There is a lack of co-ordination and leadership on drug policies, especially on our drug prevention strategies. We have had success in our anti-tobacco strategies, as well as in encouraging seat-belt usage and in preventing drunk driving. We now have everyone on the same page with these things, but we lack that focused strategy on drugs. On drug policy, we have such differences in opinion and even differences between provinces on proper policies and on views on what drugs are more dangerous than others. There is a vast difference between the federal policy and the strategies of some of the provinces. I am currently working with a group developing a new national youth substance-abuse-prevention strategy that hopes to provide more consistency across the country. Clearly, on this issue, there needs to be more provincial buy-in. It certainly does not help when politicians make offhanded remarks in favour of legalization. It definitely sends a mixed message to our youth.
Q) The Conservative government recently introduced new mandatory minimum sentences for what they term “serious drug offences.” How do you feel about this approach and this law?
A) From what I know about them, I am not able to say for sure whether mandatory minimum sentences will work. What I do know from my experience is this: For over 35 years, I have been aware of the drug situation. During that time, sentences for drug offences have been decreasing, and the problems related to
drug use have been increasing. So, one thing I know for sure is that shorter sentencing is not the answer. Whether it is jail time or something else, we must have negative consequences for negative behaviour. If we have no deterrent, we can expect an increase in the problem.
Q) Some believe it is possible and even morally necessary to separate cannabis from other harder drugs in our drug policies. How do you feel about this separation of soft and hard drugs”?
A) I think this tendency is dangerous and misleading. You cannot separate drugs into these two categories. What would actually be a clear definition of a hard drug versus a soft drug? You can’t die from a cannabis overdose, but you can die or cause injury while under impairment from cannabis. There are many deaths and injuries, whether motor vehicle accidents or in operating heavy industrial machinery at places like sawmills that can be traced to marijuana impairment. It is just like being under the influence of alcohol, which has led to much death and injury. No matter what drugs you are talking about, you are trying to stop negative behaviour. Anyone who has raised children knows you need to have consequences for bad behaviour. Drug use has led to all sorts of large problems, including death and injury. Many parents look at the problems of their child losing ambition, dropping out of school as a result of using cannabis. It has large consequences. So, holding to this distinction of hard versus soft drugs is dangerous. Those who have been addicted to drugs know the long-term impact drug use has had on their life and how these issues stay with them for years.
Q) How would you respond to the libertarian argument of self-ownership when it comes to drugs or the basic idea that no one has the right to tell people what they may put into their own bodies?
A) All you need to do is talk to any addict who is in recovery for an answer to that argument. I know many people who have been addicted to drugs; some lived in the Downtown Eastside. I used to bring some of these former addicts with me to help train new drug investigators. What they say is that once a person is addicted, it’s the drug that’s speaking; it is no longer them. Once they are sober and clean, the real person is back. While they are still using drugs, they are not in control of themselves. It’s not a rational person talking when they are still addicted.
Q) Some policy makers and even police organizations are becoming increasingly supportive of harm reduction approaches when it comes to drug offences. You have been critical of this approach, particular in relation to the Insite safe injection site in Vancouver. Why are you critical of these approaches?
A) Well, the reason for my criticism is twofold. The Insite project is one extreme of the whole harm reduction movement. First of all, I oppose treating harm reduction as a separate pillar in the drug strategy. Canada’s new anti-drug strategy focuses on reducing harm (through prevention, treatment and enforcement), which is good. When harm reduction is treated as a separate pillar, and gets a capital “H” and capital “R,” it becomes part of the Harm Reduction Movement, which includes a focus on legalization. I fail to see how legalization is going to reduce the harms from drug use. The harmful properties of a drug have nothing to do with the legal status of the drug. Secondly, the definition of harm reduction is that we try to reduce the harms to a drug user without trying to get them to stop using the drug. This creates a cycle of drug use with no end in sight. I visualize it this way: It’s like you have a pool of deep water. There are people constantly falling into the pool and can’t get out. If they stay there, they will eventually drown. Prevention strategies would be teaching them not to go close enough to fall into the pool. Treatment would be pulling them out of the pool. Enforcement is like putting up fences to keep them away from the pool. Harm reduction, however, is like throwing them a life jacket and letting them stay in the pool. You are never really dealing with the problem. As more people fall into the pool, you need more life jackets. Eventually, you run out of money and resources for prevention and treatment. You’re just throwing in more life jackets. Only prevention and
treatment will reduce the number of people in the pool. Focusing solely on harm reduction allows the problem to keep on increasing. The strategy should always be on how to reduce the number of users in the first place. This will involve increasing funding for prevention and treatment. Unfortunately, in this country, we still don’t have enough funding for prevention and treatment. I fear that if our focus is on Harm Reduction first, we will never have enough for effective prevention and treatment.
Q) How would you explain the growing popularity of the Harm Reduction Movement as well as other movements toward liberalized drug regimes?
A) The popularity is the result of a combination of factors. A lot of people in this movement are giving this advice to police and to government. Most of the hard-core leaders of the Harm Reduction Movement are legalization proponents. I attended a Harm Reduction conference where it was evident that most of the top leaders of the Harm Reduction Movement are also pro-legalization. Many who are legitimately out to help people and prevent harm are being led astray by these people. The leaders are usually PhD researchers who have no experience treating a drug addict. In some cases, they have actually used drugs themselves, so they are trying to legitimize their own use. It’s also that the easiest way to show you are doing something about drugs is through harm reduction. It’s quick and easy to present those solutions. Prevention, on the other hand, is a long-term project. Look at our anti-tobacco strategies. That took about 10 to 15 years to finally start taking real effect. You need to change societal attitudes first. It has to become socially unacceptable. In countries like Sweden, all politicians agree that drugs are bad. Our politicians need to get out in front of this effort. We need to stop praising and identifying with known drug users. The message of being drug-free and proud of it should be more common. An example of mixed messages is when our athlete [Ross Rebagliati] won a gold medal for snowboarding at the Nagano Games and he had his medal stripped after it was revealed he had tested positive for marijuana in his system. After they gave it back to him, our politicians were congratulating him for his win without referring at all to his drug use. That sent the wrong message to our youth. There was a lost “teaching opportunity” in teaching our children about the negative consequences of drug use. They could have used that opportunity to talk about the consequences of smoking pot (the embarrassment to the person and to Canada).
Q) You have visited several European countries that have different drug regimes. What were your observations from these trips, and what can they teach us here in Canada?
A) I think it’s very clear that places like Amsterdam have an even worse drug problem than here in Vancouver. But, in Sweden, drug laws are much more restrictive. There is more of an emphasis placed there on prevention and treatment. Drug usage is also much lower in Sweden; it has one of the lowest rates of drug use in the world. If we are studying ways to structure our drug policies, we should look at Sweden. Instead, all of the harm reduction and legalization people are referring to Holland, Germany and Australia where laws are being liberalized. Why don’t they look at the model from Sweden? In Amsterdam, people are still shooting up on the streets. I visited Frankfurt, Germany, and spoke to the police and managers of their drug injection sites. In this city, they were worried about the areas where people were using drugs. There were concerns, as the public had to travel to these areas to get to the business district and other parts of the city. They started by bringing in literally hundreds more police officers to clear up the drug scene. Many of these people were not residents, so the police could legally tell them to leave the city. After they had cleaned up the park and kicked out half of the addicts, there was a huge reduction in the amount of drug overdose deaths. They also introduced a variety of new drug treatment programs and social housing. However, the drug users were still causing a problem in three areas of the city. They needed to move them to an area where the public would not complain about them. Then, they realized they had such an area. They already had a Red Light District (where prostitution and pornography are allowed), like they have in Amsterdam. They wanted drug users to all go to that area. In order to help keep them in that area, they set up consumer rooms. In Germany, they don’t use the term “safe injections site.” What they did was strictly
enforce drug laws outside this area, but within it, they allow open drug use. It’s all about containment of the problem; it doesn’t solve it. The problem for Vancouver is that they are trying to clean up the Downtown Eastside. It won’t be cleaned up by setting up an injection site in this area, as we’ve seen from in other cities.
When I was there, people were always lined up in front of these consumer rooms. There were still people shooting up all over the streets near them. When they first opened them up, only heroin users were involved. This was manageable, as these people only shoot-up about three times a day. However, once the cocaine users appeared, there were problems, as these people can shoot-up up to 30 times in a single day. A cocaine user will absolutely not wait in line to get into the injection site. Vancouver already had a problem with cocaine before they opened their injection site. If they had studied the case of Frankfurt, Germany, they would have seen that they do not work for cocaine addicts. (In a supervised injection site, you purchase the drugs on your own, and you enter the injection site to shoot-up. Medical staff are present to watch and notify an ambulance if anyone overdoses).
If you actually look at the evidence associated with the safe injection sites, the effects have been negligible. The number of overdoses on the streets of Vancouver actually increased after the site was established. They point to the lack of overdose deaths within the site as evidence of success. That is misleading. I could also say that there has never been a death in my own home due to drug overdose, so we need to make more homes like mine to solve this problem. The case they are making is not logical. If there are still more deaths due to overdose in the city overall, they can’t claim to have reduced them. The proponents of the site also point to the number of drug treatment referrals as a success. In the injection site, the staff only need to tell the drug user about treatment in order for it to count as a referral. No one was checking to see if the person actually went for treatment. I went around asking all of the treatment centres in Vancouver how many of these people are actually showing up, and all of them said they have not received a single treatment referral from Insite. Making a referral and actually showing up for treatment are two different things. I would say people showing up for treatment is the correct measure of success, not the number of referrals. So, this argument they gave is, in fact, misleading.
They also point to decreased public disorder as evidence of success. But, they fail to mention that that is because they are paying for extra police officers at overtime pay to patrol the area on either side of the site. The disorder problem was solved by the extra police patrols, not the site itself. The last thing they point to is the declining number of discarded needles found in the neighbourhood. But, I am aware that they have hired extra people to pick up these needles. So, it has nothing to do with the injection site.
They have to look at the overall impact this site is having on the city, not just in the number of overdose deaths they are reducing in their facility. I am as much interested in saving these lives as they are, but I am interested in the facts and evidence, so we can be as effective as possible with the few resources we have.
Q) Some critics argue that it is the illegality of drugs that makes them so profitable. This, they contend, is what is driving drug crimes. As a former police officer, how would you respond to this argument?
A) I have actually written something about that. It refers to arguments related to marijuana, but it can be as easily applied to other drugs as well. The strategy of the legalization proponents is to normalize use. They will start by fooling people into believing it has value as medicine. Then they will want to legalize marijuana outright. After that, they will move on to the other drugs. That is their strategy. I would ask them to describe how they intend to sell the drugs if they became legally controlled. They say they would not sell them to kids, just like tobacco and alcohol cannot be sold to minors. But, if you look at deaths and injury caused by these things (alcohol and tobacco) and the impacts they have on the economic system, it is clear alcohol
and tobacco have huge consequences on society. I think one statistic is that in B.C. alone in one year, about 2,000 deaths can be attributed to alcohol and 5,000 to tobacco. I then ask why they want to pattern their drug legalization model after legal tobacco and alcohol, which has been so hugely unsuccessful. I would argue that is a bad model to follow. If it remains illegal to sell to kids, then there will still be a black market. That would not go away. Why would the local drug dealer stop selling it just because there is now a legal supply at the drug store? If a kid is currently getting marijuana from a local dealer, why would he all of a sudden stop buying from that dealer? I used to get calls from distressed parents who have seen their children suddenly drop out of school due to marijuana use. Legalizing marijuana will not change that. Also, if it’s legally available, won’t more people start using it?
It also doesn’t address the issue of potency. I mean, at what level of potency do you sell these legal drugs? If certain people don’t get the potency they need, they will buy it off the black market. If the government does not sell at the level they require, they will always seek alternate markets.
People use alcohol Prohibition as an example when they talk about organized crime, but you see in that case organized crime did not disappear, and it still exists today. Legalizing drugs would not eliminate organized crime.
Here in British Columbia, over 90 per cent of the marijuana that is grown is sold in the United States, so you would still have the need for a black market to meet that demand, as it is unlikely the United States will legalize marijuana any time soon. And again, you would still have a market for underage kids and those seeking more-potent drugs.
I also see the flaw in the taxation of drugs argument. People argue that you can tax it and simply put the money back into drug treatment. The problem is this argument is contradicted by those who say that they will take the sting out of drug crime by undercutting drug dealers. However, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t impose taxes on legal drugs and undercut illegal drug dealers at the same time.
I see no upside to selling it legally. When you start talking about it, you see that most people haven’t taken the time to think critically about the issue.
Q) The Supreme Court of Canada recently made it easier for private grow ops to supply those who use medical marijuana. What are your views on medical marijuana and whether it contributes to drug crime in this country?
A) It does indirectly contribute to crime, as some are using it as an excuse to grow more than they are allowed and sell it to others. If they have marijuana as a medicine, it needs to be supplied through the government. I have spoken to doctors who have said it is ridiculous to have a medicine smoked because it’s impossible to control the dosage. In pills, you can regulate dosage, but not with smoking. You cannot control the level of THC if people are allowed to grow their own. If there is a need for using marijuana medicinally, it would need to be done without smoking it. They are already looking into that. There is no legitimate medical association that supports smoking marijuana for medical purposes.
Q) Vancouver and Toronto have experimented with Drug Treatment Courts, which make drug treatment integral to sentencing. How do you feel about these approaches?
A) I think that is absolutely the right way to go. I’ve visited one of these courts in Seattle, Washington. I was part of a team sent to examine it. One of the graduates told me that his success was mainly due to one simple reason: If he fell off the tracks, so to speak, there was always someone there to put him back on. In a drug-court system, there is supervision, as a caseworker is provided to those convicted. In many cases,
there is supervision for up to two years. This is the usual time it takes to realistically have any success in treating a drug addiction. For most addicts, it is very common to relapse. Addiction is very powerful. We need to acknowledge that and help these people overcome it. It’s very difficult to prevent relapse when you are alone out there. The Drug Treatment Court system gives these people that constant supervision that they don’t get through the normal health care system. In our drug sentences, we need to separate the “real criminals” from those who simply make bad decisions in their life and need this treatment. The “real criminals” are the heavy-duty traffickers who are strictly doing it for profit. These are the large-scale traffickers and importers who are not selling to feed their own habit, but to make money. We need to go after them and make sure the consequences of their crimes are sufficient to act as a deterrent.
Q) Is there an effective way to balance compassion for drug addicts with a tough drug enforcement regime?
A) Using the example of Sweden, they have drug treatment workers working at the police station. In Canada, you can only be arrested for being under the influence of alcohol. In Sweden, anyone under the influence of any drug can also be arrested. These people are always referred to a drug treatment worker after their arrest and get some form of drug treatment. If necessary, they can be forced into drug treatment for their own protection. A similar situation occurs here in our mental health system, where some are forced into treatment against their will to protect themselves and others. They are then released when they are better. I don’t see it as wrong at all. The civil libertarians out there would oppose that, but I think it’s either that or they end up resorting to crime and going to jail.
Perhaps Canada should move towards a drug treatment system where it is easier to mandate drug treatment. We already have the Drug Treatment Courts, but they are limited to just specific crimes. We should expand them to include people picked up for doing any crime where there is an actual addiction issue involved in the criminal behaviour.
Q) With your experience, what would be an ideal drug policy for Canada?
A) The anti-drug policy framework we are embarking on is headed in the right direction. At the same time, we need to focus on prevention, treatment and enforcement but not allow harm reduction to be treated by policy makers as some separate pillar of our strategy. Harm reduction should only be one part of the treatment pillar. You still need to get these people off the drugs. Abstinence must be the eventual goal in all this. What we need in Canada is more funding for treatment and prevention. Different levels of government have recently given more money for these efforts than they did in the past, but it is still not enough. We need to invest the money and time to allow this to work. We can’t do it half-assed and expect it to work. We need to concentrate more resources on this.
In July 2007, Chuck Doucette retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after 35 years. More than 30 of them were spent in various aspects of Drug Enforcement in and around Vancouver, B.C. His last 12 years with the RCMP were in the Drug Awareness Service, first as the provincial co-ordinator for B.C. and then as the Pacific Region co-ordinator (B.C. and Yukon).
Doucette’s experience includes giving presentations at public meetings, conferences and RCMP training sessions that deal with drug investigations, awareness and prevention of drug use. He has attended international conferences dealing with the prevention of drug use, and he has visited England, Sweden, Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands to examine their drug policies. Doucette was on the board of the Pacifica Treatment Centre in Vancouver for six years. He is a co-founder of the Addictive Drug Information Council. He is on the boards of the D.A.R.E. BC Society and the Drug Prevention Network of Canada. He is also a member of the International Task Force for Strategic Drug Policy.