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Opinion: We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem!

Current Richmond city councillor weighs in on the on-going drug poisoning crisis.
Kash Heed, currently a Richmond city councillor, used to be head of the Vancouver drug squad.

When I was the Commanding Officer of the VPD Drug Unit in the early 2000s, our aim was to arrest drug dealers.

Almost every week, I unveiled eye-catching, drug-busting measures in front of the cameras; even so, I was struggling to get on top of the problem. I was frustrated by fighting what I saw as an invincible battle.

There was an enormous number of people who wanted to buy drugs. Whenever we took a dealer out, the gap was filled.

Enforcement was able, at best, to displace the market. The consensus was that drug dependency was primarily a health issue rather than a legal issue. However, the inability of “the system” to respond to immediate needs created a huge credibility problem for our drug strategy.

Health apart, drugs cause other kinds of harm, not just to the individual but to society at large. Chaotic drug users are disproportionately likely to commit crimes. Where drug use directly harms society, the police are right to intervene.

But if the best way to protect society were to increase enforcement, police would begin by pursuing alcohol users who cause far more aggression and misbehaviour than any other substance, legal or illegal.

Issues won't be solved overnight

Drug use is one of the nation’s most difficult and complex problems, and society must refuse to accept the notion that somehow it is beyond their reach to solve. Equally important is the need to refrain from the notion that unless we win unconditionally, we have failed.

This is not a problem that developed overnight, and it will not be solved overnight.

Many people take drugs because they get pleasure from them. To those who prefer a glass of wine and a cigar, that may seem hard to understand. It is, however, unlikely that so many people would spend so much money on willingly smoking, sniffing or injecting drugs if doing so brought them nothing but misery.

That said, abusing drugs unquestionably wrecks many lives. Once people become truly dependent, the pleasure then consists mainly of avoiding the pain of giving up.

The dangers of drugs should not be underestimated, yet they should not be exaggerated either.

Addicts face social, economic, physical and legal environments unique to their situation. Asking an addict to be patient and wait for an available slot for detoxification and treatment is frankly a waste of time. The crisis will pass, and the addict will simply pick up their usual habits.

The opportunity to intervene will be lost, and the addict will view “the system” as useless and ineffective. Repeated experiences of this sort simply reinforce to the addict that they cannot initiate change.

We must accept and respect the fact that addicts are people too. They are not a lost group. They have an identity, they have stories, and they can still lead useful lives.

To begin to put in place pragmatic policies is a step forward. Polarized debate and conflicting ideas need to be left behind and we need to concentrate collectively on issues where agreement exists, as opposed to those that breed discord.

I am aware discussing a topic that is the subject of heated social debate may have its political hazards. My 32 years of policing, four years as an MLA, and now my term in Richmond city council has shown me many are reluctant to openly discuss this issue, while politicians are concerned about the prospect of losing their supporters.

Policymakers who advocate for more liberal laws or approaches risk being pictured as favouring drug use.

Nevertheless, it is clear people view the illegal drug trade and subsequent health consequences as a serious challenge, and frequently point out the threatening nature of drug use and its impact on society. 

Many argue the criminal justice system does not respond adequately to people who sell drugs or commit crimes to sustain a drug habit. Others suggest that substance abuse is primarily a health issue and should be dealt with by increasing services to those who are addicted to drugs, and that the solution to the drug problem must be found in broad-scale social change.

For the moment though, even having an honest discussion concerning drug policy is extremely difficult. Drug strategies are often characterized by heated debate, disagreement, and bitterness. Stakeholders, subject to their different worldviews, ideologies, and frames of reference, challenge other stakeholders, while academics, policymakers, and practitioners who operate largely within their own communities, reinforce this condition.

Furthermore, pure reason competes with politics in shaping the response of our government.

This article is part of an in-depth, provincewide journalistic effort by Glacier Media to examine the scope, costs and toll of the opioid and toxic drug crisis in British Columbia – a public health emergency that has taken at least 11,807 lives since 2016.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911. If you need help with substance abuse, call the B.C. government’s alcohol and drug information and referral service at 1-800-663-1441. It’s available 24 hours a day.