Harper's anti-drug strategy gets a little less compassionate

For the next five years, the focus will be more on busting drug users than helping them

Drug money

Tara Walton/Toronto Star

When Stephen Harper launched his high-profile National Anti-Drug Strategy in the fall of 2007, he took aim at critics who were already saying his new Conservative government was putting too much emphasis on more drug arrests and longer prison sentences, and not enough on helping addicts. “This approach will be tough on crime and compassionate for victims,” the Prime Minister said in a speech in Winnipeg announcing the policy. “If you’re addicted to drugs, we’ll help you, but if you deal drugs, we’ll punish you.”

The blueprint Harper unveiled that day would bring more than $500 million in spending by a dozen federal departments and agencies under one umbrella. Spending was mapped out for five years, the period that ended this past spring. Now, a plan for the next five years of anti-drug programs, again worth more than half a billion dollars, has been drafted. Despite Harper’s early emphasis on balance, though, the planning and priorities report tabled with the federal Treasury Board for the next five years reveals deep cuts in Health Canada’s budget for drug treatment—but hefty increases in budgets for drug enforcement by police and prosecutors.

The spending squeeze that’s likely to be most demoralizing for groups running street-level rehabilitation programs for addicts is the reduction of Health Canada’s Drug Treatment Funding Program to $80 million for the next five years, down from $122 million in the previous five years. In sharp contrast, the RCMP will see its five-year funding for investigating marijuana growers and clandestine drug labs rise to $113 million, up from $85 million in the previous five years. As well, support for the federal Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions will rise to $61 million for the coming five-year stretch, up from $43 million for the strategy’s first half-decade.

The government has done nothing to publicize the anti-drug policy’s second five-year phase, much less drawn attention to the apparent shift in funding priorities. Maclean’s asked Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s office why treatment funding was being cut. Her officials said some of the earlier funding was meant “to support the provinces and territories in establishing treatment centres or programs,” not to pay for their ongoing operations. That answer will hardly satisfy groups trying to maintain street-level treatment services. “So you now have programs that have proven their efficacy, but there are no resources to sustain them,” said Susan Shepherd, manager of the Toronto Drug Strategy Secretariat. “They’re done.”

In some cases, those resources apparently dried up months ago. Bernadette MacDonald, executive director of Tri-County Women’s Centre, a Nova Scotia group working on rural anti-drug projects whose more than $300,000 in federal funding runs out this year, said the Health Canada office in Halifax that managed those grants was shut down last spring. “Having regional staff,” she said, “was very important for community organizations.” MacDonald added that she isn’t aware of any new money from Ottawa for the sort of drug-awareness work her group has been doing with teenagers.

She’s far from alone in being uncertain about which parts of the government’s anti-drug plan it sees as having succeeded in the past five years and which fell short of expectations. An evaluation report commissioned by Justice Canada has not yet been made public. However, Maclean’s obtained, under the Access to Information Act, a draft of that report from late last year, along with results from consultations done by a private firm. These documents reveal widespread misgivings about the strategy, based largely on interviews with dozens of federal officials and “stakeholders,” including leaders of groups that got funding, provincial and municipal officials, police and academic experts. Although the draft report credits the federal anti-drug plan with making “significant progress,” it also highlights persistent criticisms of the government’s approach. From the outset, the Conservatives insisted on focusing only on illicit drugs, excluding alcohol and legal pharmaceuticals for reasons that baffle many experts in substance abuse. The report says representatives of several federal departments “noted that the strategy should address abuse/misuse of non-illicit substances as well as illicit ones.” Outside experts pointed out that “strict criteria on illicit drugs” left some organizations ineligible for federal funding. Others stressed that “among First Nations, alcohol is the No. 1 barrier to community health.”

But the most frequently repeated complaint from stakeholders concerned the impact of criminal charges on illegal drug users. “Being sentenced and jailed for drug offences,” says a summary of the evaluation findings, “can often foster negative emotions and hopelessness that can often lead to further drug use.” It goes on: “There is a need for a method of enforcement that can change the lives of those using illicit drugs in a positive manner.”

Under the previous Liberal government, Health Canada was given the lead role in anti-drug policy. But Harper put Justice Canada in charge, signalling clearly how the Conservatives view illegal drugs as, first and foremost, a law-and-order challenge, rather than mainly a health issue. That fit with the Tories’ tough-on-crime messaging, an important part of the winning election campaign rhetoric. But the authors of the evaluation report found stiff resistance to the shift, noting that some community groups didn’t support the move from the health department’s emphasis on treatment to justice’s focus on enforcement.

The general public, of course, wouldn’t know or care which department was in the driver’s seat. To most people, the only visible element of the Conservative anti-drug push was prominent advertising under its “prevention action plan.” Starting in the summer of 2008, Health Canada launched a campaign of TV, radio, online and print ads. In one widely seen TV spot, an adolescent girl started out fixing her ponytail in her well-appointed bedroom, then spiralled into a drug-abuse nightmare, ending with her scratching at the needle marks on her forearm. Follow-up public opinion surveys by the government found that the ads were widely noticed by teenagers and their worried parents.

But many addiction experts cited studies showing that public education campaigns tend not to change the behaviour of the subset of young people who are most likely to develop serious drug problems. Shepherd said the Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Panel urged Harper last year to redirect money away from ads “based on fear tactics.” Some police evidently agreed. The draft evaluation said an RCMP representative “argued that the strategy should be more focused on intervention and diversion of at-risk youth vs. raising awareness in the general population.”

Despite those criticisms, the government has always defended running the ads and setting up a related “DrugsNot4Me” website and a Facebook page. “The campaign has been very successful and generated a high level of engagement by youth,” Health Canada said in an email response to questions. Yet after pouring $30 million into the department’s “mass media campaign” in its first five years, the anti-drug strategy’s next phase has no budget at all under that heading. And Heath Canada officials confirmed the unceremonious end of the DrugsNot4Me ad campaign, although they said its online elements will remain.

Planned funding is roughly stable for some less splashy components of the federal anti-drug arsenal. Those include Health Canada’s Drug Strategy Community Initiatives Fund, which supports local projects designed to discourage illicit drug use, and Justice Canada’s six drug treatment courts—located in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Regina—where offenders get a chance to complete treatment programs instead of going to prison. As well, the Canada Revenue Agency will continue receiving about $1 million a year to audit taxpayers suspected by police of being involved in the drug trade.

Still, it’s the changes in the broader anti-drug spending mix that stand out. In all, Health Canada’s five-year budget under the strategy is slated to drop 15 per cent to $230 million, while the RCMP’s targeted funding is projected to jump 22 per cent to $127 million. If Harper started out insisting that the Conservative approach be seen as scrupulously balanced, the plan for his strategy’s next five years shows a pronounced tilt away from compassionate treatment and toward hard-nosed enforcement.

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