A School of Public Health PhD student working at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver collaborated with colleagues in BC and Ontario to highlight the Canadian federal government’s changing direction on illegal drug policy.
The resulting commentary, recently published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, outlines a shift away from a public health approach to illicit drug use.
In the commentary, Elaine Hyshka and her colleagues state that, guided by research and evidence, the illegal drug policies of other countries have moved away from enforcement and incarceration. Instead, they are moving towards public health objectives such as harm reduction initiatives. Until 2006, Canada was in line with this trend.
| Elaine Hyshka, PhD student
But according to Hyshka and her colleagues, the federal government has recently ignored the evidence and begun moving backwards on illegal drug. They are becoming “one of the last remaining advocates of the failed ‘war-on-drugs’ approach.”
“Drug policy is a complicated issue with a variety of criminal justice, health care and moral aspects that sometimes make it difficult for governments to focus on research evidence,” Hyshka says. “But the scientific evidence indicates that a public health approach, including harm reduction initiatives, can
reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with illegal drug use. However, the current Canadian government is choosing to ignore these facts.”
Hyshka highlights policies such as the mandatory minimums legislation within Bill C-10 as one of the key ways in which the current government is intensifying Canada’s war on drugs. The article states that, although this policy meets the goals of punishment and retribution, it fails to meet broader objectives of drug use deterrence and the rehabilitation of offenders.
Hyshka and her colleagues warned against the passing of Bill C-10 and outlined how the legislations contained in the bill are “not supported by science or public demand…and contrast starkly with the recommendations of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the Supreme Court of Canada, and international trends.” However, in May 2012, the bill was passed.
“Given that we now have a majority government, no one was surprised that the bill was approved,” says Hyshka.
According to Hyshka, Bill C-10 has very significant implications for public health because it doesn’t deal with the root causes of illegal drug use. Mandatory minimum sentencing targets street-level dealers, such as youth for whom this conviction is a first offense or those who are illegal substance users. These individuals are then placed in prisons with little access to treatment and where they face increased risk of HIV and Hepatitis C infection.
“Incarceration doesn’t just affect one person; it affects their social networks and those who rely on them for income,” explains Hyshka. “When individuals leave prison without dealing with their substance use problems, and with the stigma of a criminal conviction, they are more likely to reoffend and engage in risk behaviours.” This can negatively impact both their health and safety and that of others around them, she says.
“Incarceration is really a public health issue.”
Now, Hyshka says, the task of drug policy researchers and advocates for public health and human rights is to document the negative impact of Bill C-10 and Canada’s intensified war on drugs approach.
“While we may not be able to influence policy decisions right now, we will be able to in the future. We really have an important role in promoting and protecting public health.”
Elaine Hyshka’s summer placement with the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS was made possible by a scholarship from the Western Regional Training Centre for Health Services.