Open Letter from the Scientific Community to all Parliamentarians on Bill S-10

by Donald MacPherson on February 13, 2011

I am working with a number of Canadians to birth a new drug policy organization, actually more of a collaboration among those interested in advancing new approaches to respond to drug addiction and the illegal drug trade. There are a great many people out there who want some real change in the way we approach people who use drugs and those with addictions, from one that has criminalization at the centre of the response to one based on principles of public health and human rights – an approach that acknowledges addiction to drugs is a complex phenomenon and the simplistic solutions are doomed to failure. Something that we want to work towards is to find a way to cool the rhetoric around drugs and crime enough so that we can engage Canadians in a more grounded discussion of what legislation and policy based on evidence might look like and what impacts it might have in creating healthier and safer communities. In the meantime we have a very good opportunity to witness the “same old same old” fashion in which the very serious business of crime, safety and public health are discussed by our political leaders in this country with the recent introduction of  the government’s “tough on crime” legislation that promises mandatory minimum sentences as a deterrent to organized criminal organizations trafficking drugs.

In response to this proposed legislation introduced in Parliament this week the scientific community has responded with an open letter to all parliamentarians on Bill S-10 which introduces mandatory minimum sentences for a range of drug related offenses.

You can read the letter on the Urban Health Research Initiative website. It begins: “We, the undersigned, are concerned that the federal government is pursuing significant amendments to federal drug legislation, through Bill S-10, which are not scientifically grounded and which research demonstrates may actually contribute to health and social harms in our communities. We join with other individuals and community groups that have previously expressed concerns in their testimony to various Committees and in open letters, and we outline our key concerns, in brief, below.”

The letter goes on to outline that:

  1. There is no evidence that mandatory minimum sentences will reduce drug use or deter crime.
  2. Mandatory minimum sentences have a disproportionately negative impact on youth and Aboriginal persons.
  3. Policies that over-emphasize drug law enforcement have a negative impact on public health and rates of HIV.
  4. Mandatory minimum sentences are expensive and ineffective.

The individuals who signed this letter are some of the leading scientists and public health voices in the country and represent expertise at local and national levels. Let’s hope that someone is listening.

The Liberals under Michael Ignatieff recently announced that they will defeat Bill S-10 in parliament which is a harder line than they have taken for some time on the Conservative crime agenda fearing the “soft on crime” attacks that are the usual substance of Tory responses to any criticism by any one of the proposed legislation. Of course the Conservatives launched an immediate attack on the Liberal position similar to the one Conservative candidate Julie Javier used in her failed bid to win over the residents of Winnipeg North. Vintage polarizing political rhetoric without one iota of relevance to the actual issue of reducing crime. Take a look at it here in Ms Javier’s earlier campaign or here from a recent exchange in the House of Commons and an interview with Canada’s Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. Of course the NDP and the Bloc have been opposed to Bill S-10 all along.

It is difficult to create public policy in the area of drugs and crime that is  dispassionate, looks to the evidence that we have the benefit of and builds towards a more intelligent, effiective and cost-efficient approach to such complex issues that impact so many Canadians. We need to find a way to do this if we are to make any real progress on the drugs and crime file.

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