04.12.2012 09:17 AM

Dan Gardner is going to get mad at me for this

Dan Gardner is an intimidating guy.  I met him about a decade ago, when he was leaving the employ of the Ontario PC government and heading off to work at the Ottawa Citizen.  He was a big, slightly-intimidating guy.  I figured he was a conservative, and that we wouldn’t agree on much.

In the interim, I have come to be very impressed by his passion for certain issues, and the ferocity with which he writes about them.  As such, he’s probably the most informed journalist in Canada on the drug trade, and what should be done about it.

Dan argues that the so-called “war on drugs” is irrevocably lost, and that governments have been doing a very bad job dealing with illegal drug use.  In particular, he is resolutely favours programs like Insite in Vancouver.  He also favours expanding them.  So, today, do others.

Arguing with Dan, I think, is a bit like arguing with me: people don’t like to do it.  We tend to take no prisoners.

But, with respect – lawyers always say that when they are about to disagree with you – I disagree with him, still, about safe injection sites.  Not for the reasons that conservatives always give, of course, with their inane fetish for “law and order” (except as it applies to them, cf. Robocon).  For another reason – for the reason a bleeding-heart liberal like me would give: drug addiction is bad, and it ultimately kills people.  So we need to help addicts from being addicts, because we don’t want them to die.  I believe we have a moral obligation to do that.  That’s not hurting them; that’s helping our fellow citizens.

Dan will have a passionate and much more thoughtful take on that, of course.  But I wanted to venture my own opinion – offered up to someone I respect a great deal, but with whom I still disagree.


  1. Mike Foulds says:

    Can’t we try to do both?

  2. Glen says:

    Such a complicated issue with so much emotion attached to it. I am reluctantly replying to your post:

    What about the ones that we can’t help from being addicts? Are you ok with them dying?

    If safe injection sites help addicts live, is that not helping them?

    As people, all we have is life, whatever that life has become.

  3. Tiger says:

    I’m on the “End Prohibition” bandwagon.

    People are going to do drugs, and I see no reason to continue to trample on other civil liberties and provide a huge subsidy to organized crime (in providing them with a protected market) by continuing the war on drugs.

    Don’t decriminalize them — legalize them. Then concentrate some of the saved resources (which would be massive) on convincing people not to do them in the first place.

    • Philip says:

      Top post. Legalizing drugs would accomplish so many things, in terms of money saved and in terms of how we deal with addiction. Portugal has had some pretty impressive accomplishments using this approach. By using monies once allocated towards enforcement, to prevention and education the total population of addicts has declined. In addition the rates of new users has dropped signigantly.

      • Ted H says:

        Legalization would take distribution out of the hands of criminals. Ripple effect would include less criminal activity, less gun crime. Safety and purity of the product would be ensured. Government could collect substantial taxes as they do on alcohol and tobacco. Sales would be controlled in the same manner as alcohol and tobacco.

        Social acceptability of the product would move to a position similar to alcohol. Just as social mores have changed in the past decade to regard alcohol impairment as unacceptable, the attitude to legalized marijuana impairment would similarly change. Legalized marijuana is not only about recreational use, a crop of hemp could produce the same amount of paper each year that a woodlot would take 25 years of growth to produce.

        All in all a win win situation for everyone, it should have happened 20 years ago.

  4. Tim says:

    I am with Dan on this subject. I believe the concept among people who help addicts is called harm reduction. There are a wide range of treatment options for people who are addicted. None of them are 100% successful. The one constant in any successful recovery is that the addicted person has to want to get better. Safe injection sites help addicted people stay alive so they can hopefully reach that decision. They also make people who want to get better aware of what help is available for them.

  5. Aaron says:

    Great idea Warren, but we will never ever prevent addiction, short of some other drug panacea, so we must as Mike Foulds says above do both. We must protect the addicts while they are addicted until such time as they recover. It is easy to dismiss these people as useless, unproductive members of society, but sometimes all it takes is one wrong turn or one catastrophic event in one’s life to enter this terrible place. Could happen to anyone, of course nobody will admit or acknowledge that!

  6. CdnWit says:

    With respect (swidt?) I disagree with some of your post.
    “drug addiction is bad, and it ultimately kills people.” – Everything ultimately kills us, Warren. Be it drug addiction, over-eating, or time. While the bleeding-heart in me wants to save people too, the realist (perhaps bitterist) in me knows that we cannot save everyone and we cannot save people from themselves.

    From all I’ve seen, read and discussed, safe injection sites do save lives, both directly and indirectly. Less addicts are out sharing dirty needles, spreading deadly diseases, etc. This is, in a very measurable way, saving lives. They also provide counseling services – for when addicts are ready to get clean.

    From a cold-hearted SOB taxpayer standpoint, safe injection sites also save me dollars. More diseases spread amongst users (hardcore and occasional) means more sick people flowing into our already over-burdened health system.

    People will always be addicts and people will always die. We cannot stop either. But sites like this mitigate the direct and indirect ripples that drug addiction causes and the addicts, the community and the society.

  7. Tdotlib says:

    Warren, it’s my understanding the InSite provides both a safe injection site as well as a place to seek help from professionals when an addict decides it’s time to change. I don’t feel that the two need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I would think that establishing a trusting relationship with an addict through regular contact would lead to a more conducive environment for getting cleaned up.

  8. Matt says:

    It’s a hard one. In many ways it tends to elicit the same emotions as the concept of legalized prostitution. You really don’t want either to be happening, but they are there.

    I have a close friend who for years has worked at an outreach centre in Toronto. To meet with him you need to have two things going on; First, a diagnosed mental issue and second an addiction to either opiates of cocaine… needless to say whenever I think I’ve had a challenging day at work, I can just call him and ask how his was. One thing that comes up time and time again in our conversations is the concept of ‘harm reduction’. As much as I want someone addicted to drugs to quite simply not be, I’m also not comfortable with the prevalence of hepatitis, HIV/AIDS or someone dying after shooting up alone in a back ally of an overdose. For that I respect insite and personally think it has the potential to save money in healthcare costs and in fact people in the long run.

  9. Renee says:

    “Helping” them means Insite. It doesn’t sound like you’ve actually read the literature on this issue. Addicts will be addicts until they die or, in a very small percentage of cases, get clean. Sometimes they want to get clean, and some programs help, but most of the time they slide back into addiction quite quickly. When they are addicts, they use dirty needles and don’t care for their personal hygiene. Among other things. “Helping” them at this point means what, exactly, to you? It’s unclear you have based your opinion on anything other than platitudes.

  10. DanO says:

    I think there is room for harm reducation (treating current drug addicts, safe sites with the hope of getting them “clean”) and looking at the bigger picture of prevention. But prevention of becoming an addict isn’t simply the supply of drugs (peole will always find other stuff, make their own etc) but also the soci-economic factors that go into it.

    It’s a difficult issue to tackle because there are so many moving pieces but I think safe-injection sites is a positive step.

  11. GAB says:

    You do realize that Insite is also used as a bridge to get people into counseling? In the alleys and flop houses you’ll never find them, have the opportunity to interact with them and convince them to try treatment. Insite gives social workers that opportunity while keeping them safe in the mean time. I believe you are falling into the conservative mindset that this is about catering to their drug needs rather than a larger more nuanced purpose.

  12. Geoffrey Laxton says:

    I think that most drug addicts want to kick the habit. I saw a program about Insite in Vancouver and they offer addicts a chance to kick the habit there. In the meantime, the whole concept of the safe injection site is to ensure that the addicts don’t share needles and that they get medical treatment when asked or needed. Little do people know that Ottawa has a safe injection site. It is a medical issue.

  13. pomojen says:

    If you want folks with serious intravenous drug problems to get better, this is an achievable first place to start. More experience of success, more confidence, more hope, more willingness to take risks, more recovery, Look at the evidence. Obviously ore complicated than that. Bit it makes sense.

    Reason over passion. What we know vs. what we instinctively believe and knowing the difference between the two, blah blah…. All that.

  14. John says:

    Numbers don’t lie Warren.

    In Vancouver, the safe injection site has saved hundreds of lives, and helped hundreds more get off drugs. It is safe, relatively cheap and extremely effective. It is good public policy.

    The real reason the political class is so scared of this issue, is the fear of NIMBY voters.

  15. Ron Fischer says:

    Warren I usually agree with you but not this time….entirely, I see the “supervised injection sites” as a way to A- mitigate the damage to the individuals, B- reduce taxpayer costs associated with underground drug use that can be aleviated in this way and C- offer an avenue for councilling, housing, medical care and ultimately rehab services to these individuals. Without this sort of thing the addicts are hidden away and simply get scooped up and disposed of by whoever does that sort of thing.

  16. frmr disgruntled Con now Happy Lib says:

    Mr. Kinsella…..the Insite facility does not foster drug addiction……those addicts would be injecting drugs whether the site was there or not…….what the facility has done, however, is reduce the number of fatal overdoses, and it has also reduced the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C between injection drug users by greatly reducing the practice of sharing needles. Prior to this Vancouver`s downtown eastside had the highest rate of HIV transmission in the Western world. The reduction in human suffering and cost savings from this alone warrent the continuation and expansion of the program.
    The addicts are able to inject their drugs in a clean safe environment, and when and if ready, are able through Insite to access the information and facilities needed to begin detox and rehabilitation.
    I would love to see the scourge of drug addiction eliminated, who doesnt….but until we can figure out how to prevent drug addiction in the first place, we should do everything we can to reduce harm. I would even be in favour of giving the addicts their heroin for free, if that reduced the criminal element that exploits these unfortunate people.

  17. TerryB says:

    I thought that helping people with addictions with the long-game for these sites. I understand in Vancouver, for example, that users meet with a counsellor who gives them options, education, etc. before they use the site. The ultimate goal of this is to move them, or as many of them as possible, from addiction to rehab. Now we can certainly argue about whether this is effective or, for that matter, whether there are sufficient rehab resources if it were effective, but, at the same time, it seems like a reasonable goal.

  18. Dan says:

    InSite is for really hard drugs. In principle, I don’t think any of it should be illegal, because I don’t think the government should put people in jail to protect them from their selves. But in practice, these are devastating drugs, where your best case scenario is to become completely undependable in your family and your job. In Harper’s Canada, anyone unemployable is basically dead.

    I just don’t see it’s a good use of resources to chase them around with police so that they hide out until they show up at an emergency room. With InSite, we can conserve more police resources, and we can conserve more health care resources, and we can conserve more human resources in terms of actually bringing the problem out into the open so we can deal with it.

    It all sounds well and good to say “let’s help these people”. But I fail to see what’s accomplished by getting rid of InSite, and overloading our police forces by treating addicts as whack-a-mole.

  19. bluegreenblogger says:

    It’s a no brainer. I do not have much to add to the comments above. Prison is for people who deliberately do harm to their fellow citizens, not for people who make bad choices about their own health and welfare. Since the public bears the lions share of medical costs associated with bad choices, it is simply a matter of good governance to seek to mitigate the impact of drug use, to help control the associated costs, and to help people to live better and fuller lives. It is in all our interests to rehabilitate seriously addicted people, and that is clearly both the intent, and a QUANTIFIABLY succesful outcome of Insite. Warren, I think you can be free to disapprove, while still doing your best to ameliorate the negative outcomes from drug use. Do not fall into the Conservatives wrong headed ways, wherby the truth about a policy gets shunted aside because of your personal preferences and opinions. Insite worked in almost all it’s stated aims, so please tell me why it should not be expanded? Do you have a better idea? That has been proven to actually work? Then kindly trot it out, I would be interested

  20. dave says:

    It is tough for a person in trouble with a legal drug, like alcohol, to realize he is in trouble, and then to get the help he needs. It is a lot tougher for a person who is in trouble with an illegal drug to realize it and to get help; trying to get clean could carry risk of the legal system getting involved.
    Disconnecting narcotics lists from the criminal code, and connecting drug use to the health system would help everyone. Addicts, helpless, hopeless, vulnerable, are the victims in our war on drugs.

    People in trouble with illegal drugs (the ones I’ve been involved with) and people in places like DTES do not have the cash flow to fund the risky but very profitable illegal drug production and distribution system. The users who have the cash flow also have the means to keep their use of illegal drugs secret.They are in the more affluent parts of town.

    Maintaining our war on drugs funds and empowers police, and organized crime. People who support the war on drugs are (to pull a ‘Vic’ on you)supporters of increased police powers and of organized crime.

    There would never have been a mass market for the lab/custom designed drugs had the natural substances been legal all along. The mass market came because the labs produced tablets that could easily be distributed surreptitiously.

    Disconnecting the narc list from the crim code, and shifting it all over to medical care, would help everyone…especially htose who are in truble with a drug, and want the help and support to save themselves. If we can do it for alcoholism, and the few drinkers who get in trouble with that drug, we can do it for the few users who get themselves in trouble with the other substances as well.

  21. Bruce says:

    So what do you do to help them Warren? Sermons only isolate them. If you get hard time for trying to grow ditch weed, what does simple possession land an individual?

  22. Ted H says:

    The medical community says safe injection sites are beneficial and ultimately result in lower medical costs down the road. People who use them are already addicts but they are treated humanely, their conditions are treated as sickness, not as a crime and the potential for positioning them to an attitude that can help them beat the addiction is a definite possibility. Politicians and the police have no input in this discussion, they are not qualified.

    • Mulletaur says:

      Last time I looked, we live in a democracy, not a technocracy. Politicians are uniquely qualified to discuss and decide on these questions: it is their job, after all. It appears from the discussion above that the least qualified people to discuss and decide on these questions are the self-appointed experts who spend their time commenting on Web sites.

  23. Robbie says:

    Warren, we certainly don’t agree on our politics, but on this issue you have it right. It is never a good thing to give an addict drugs or the means to use.

    To all the advocates for harm reduction, look a recovering heroin addict in the eye and tell them that Insite is a good thing for their mental health. I dare you to. And, while you are at it, ask the addict where they get their drugs, and how they raise the money to get more drugs.

    Addiction needs to be treated as a mental health issue; supplying a government sponsored place to use is criminal.

    • Philip says:

      Yet provincial governments, particularly Ontario, have government run casinos. Gambling addiction is still an addiction. The harm compulsive gamblers do to themselves and loved ones is just as great as any other addict.

      You do make a good points, Robbie but government involvement in licensed gambling should be addressed as well.

  24. Brian says:

    I agree in general on your conclusions on Dan Gardner, but his fatal flaw on almost every issue he’s passionate about is his belief that all that matters is the evidence he’s seen… that no one can plausibly interpret “the evidence” in any other way than he has. So he can, occasionally, end up *sounding* like the drones he’s arguing against, even if he clearly is not one of them.Not helpful for those who see nuanced alternatives or complications from that same evidence.

    I will be interested to see his reply, if there is/was one.

  25. That is remarkably polite of you Warren. On the substantive issue? I’ll be darned if I know but, with respect, until you’ve walked in a man’s shoes………and I’ve worn my fair share of shoes.

  26. Philippe says:

    I’m with Warren on this one. I’m very-much in favor of decriminalization of soft drugs & effective harm reduction strategies. That, in my opinion, is smart use of public funds & a realistic view that we will neither eradicate drugs nor prevent people from choosing that route. That said, government supported shooting galleries, in my optional, give the subtle “ok” from government that you can “go ahead and shoot up”. I think we have to keep the practice 100% non-condoned & stigmatized. I usually let the conservatives get on their morality horses for every issue under the sun like they know best & I dare not act like them, but when it comes to this one, I must say that it does become a morality issue. We shouldn’t make it easier of addicts to continue their destructive habits. Take any money you would invest in shooting galleries & open more rehab beds.

  27. John Peck says:

    Warren, how do you propose to help addicts from being addicts?

  28. Elisabeth Lindsay says:

    The only problem I have with Insite is that the drugs are not supplied, so the addicted have to steal from the neighborhood to get them.

  29. Bil Huk says:

    as a conservative i support injection sites. unfortunately if you’ve seen true, dibilitating addiction up close, you realize that for the people using injection sites drugs stopped being a matter of ‘choice’ years ago. you might as well ask these people to stop breathing too. There’s no fun left in being an addict when you’re on the street. Their drug use has usually degraded down to avoiding the literally deadly side affects of detoxification. Those people need intense support to get clean, and jail isn’t a deterrent when without medical supervision you could die trying to get sober. Conservatives don’t like lazy people who don’t want to pull their own weight, or feel they’re more equal than the rest of us. a hardcore addict isn’t lazy, and isn’t having fun on our dime, they’ve gotten themselves so messed up that most of the time there’s no realistic way out. to pull those people out of the shadows is the first step.

    • pomojen says:

      Really well put Bill. I am in total agreement, as a lefty and a health care provider. It’s good to see that there are areas of agreement and crossover on really important issues from time to time.

  30. Anne Peterson says:

    Warren, I recommend the book ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’ by Gabor Mate, M.D. He works there. The Latin American countries are right. Drugs should be legalized and controlled and the big money got out of them. It is working in Portugal.

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