Going to MaRS in Search of a New Canadian Drug Policy

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by Donald MacPherson on June 24, 2010

My quest for A New Drug Policy for Canada has taken me to the wonderful MaRS Discovery District in Toronto for Net Change Week, a week of exploring technology for change and thinking outside the box, as they say, with social and technology innovators from around the world. MaRS, as their website says, began with a question: “Is there a better way to capture the commercial potential of Toronto’s $1 billion in annual science and technology research spending?” The answer was a resounding “Yes!”. “A charitable organization could be created to better connect the worlds of science, business and government. A public-private partnership with a mission to remove the barriers between silos, and nurture a culture of innovation. And help create global enterprises that would contribute to Canada’s economic and social development.” What a great idea! And what a wonderful collaboration among various sectors to explore innovative solutions to difficult problems. The result is a vibrant centre that provides a venue for some of the best minds in the world to come together and look at innovation and change.

Those of us in the drug policy world could paraphrase the MaRS story and say “Canada’s New Drug Policy began with a question: Is there a better way to capture the health, social and economic potential of the $2.3 billion on enforcement (police, courts and corrections), and $1.1 billion in direct health care costs every year, that Canada spends dealing with illegal drugs? Source: J. Rehm, et al. (2006) –  The Costs of Substance Abuse in Canada-2002, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. The answer would be a resounding yes! We could create a collaboration among public, private, and civil society sectors to find better ways to spend these funds than on reactive crisis management, punitive programs that do not work and the self perpetuating war on drugs approach to problem illegal drug use.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful project for us to bring a diverse range of experts including scientists, regulators, enforcement officials, people with addictions, evaluators, community builders, social development folks, business people and others together in a process to examine our current approaches and propose evidence-informed alternatives with monitoring and evaluation processes built in from the beginning so we would actually begin to measure the outcomes of our efforts. Our understanding of substance use, addiction and legal and illegal markets has advanced significantly in recent years and much of the background work has already been completed and will be further explored in this blog in days to come.

What was impressive about the MaRS Discovery District was the clarity of thinking around the notion of social innovation and how critical it is for us to support innovation in our efforts to address serious social and environmental problems that we are facing. Just as the  issue of climate change is forcing us to consider new paradigms, the failure of current drug policies is presenting us with an opportunity to consider new ways to minimize harm from substance use in society. Social Innovation has many definitions but one that I like is found in the paper Re-discovering Social Innovation – Social Innovation is “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals” a new Canadian drug policy should be able to meet the test laid out by that definition and I can’t imagine the brain power in this country wouldn’t be able to achieve this. We need to create the opportunity to do so. Check out the MaRS Discovery District and The Social Innovation Blog. Also check out Graham Dover’s Social Innovation Notes blog which is a great source of thinking on innovation and change. Think about the change process and keep in touch.

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