Cdn Politics, Global Issues

Oped in Toronto Star: From Kandahar to Carnegie

David and I have the piece below in this morning’s Toronto Star. It tries to link the supply side of the opium problem (our failing counter narcotics initiatives in Afghanistan), to our failure to address the domestic demand side of the issue. Closing Vancouver’s Insite supervised injection site would be a major step backwards, both in our strategic capability to address the challenges posed by poppy production in Afghanistan, and in our moral responsibility to help our own citizens in need. The opium problem begins at home, and harm reduction is a key component of this fight.

Failed strategy connects Afghan fields, city streets

In the coming months, under the leadership of the former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, U.S. private contractors will likely attempt to fumigate poppies in Afghanistan. Around the same time, the Canadian government will decide whether to shut down the Insite supervised injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The two policies are inextricably linked and unambiguously bad.

In April, the United States appointed William Wood, nicknamed “Chemical Bill,” its new ambassador to Afghanistan. In his previous post, Wood championed and oversaw the fumigation of large swaths of the Colombian countryside. The result? For every 67 acres sprayed, only one acre of coca was eradicated. Moreover, production increased by 36 per cent. In addition, the spraying negatively impacted legitimate crops, contaminated water supplies and increased respiratory infections among the exposed populations.

Wood is in Kabul for a single reason – to execute a similar plan in Afghanistan. Poppy production, once held in check by the Taliban government, is exploding – up 60 per cent in 2006. Poppies yield 10 times the value of wheat, so it is unsurprising that about 10 per cent of an otherwise impoverished Afghan population partakes in the illicit poppy harvest. It earns them upwards of $3 billion (U.S.) a year, or roughly 65 per cent of Afghan GDP.

The short-term economic costs and long-term development and health impacts of fumigation will be borne by those whose livelihoods are both directly and indirectly connected to poppy cultivation. Spraying could easily cause public opinion to turn against the Karzai administration and NATO forces, further compromising the mission and increasing the danger to Canadian soldiers.

Given the increased risks this policy poses to both our soldiers and the overall mission, the government’s silence is unconscionable. Others have not been so quiet. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently observed that there is little international support for fumigation. He announced an alternative policy to wean farmers off of opium, one that includes an ambitious plan to top up payments for legal crops, such as wheat.

Such policies, however, are only part of a long-term project. Success will require a holistic view, one that understands the connections between the consumption of illicit drugs in places like Vancouver and their cultivation in Afghanistan. Specifically, this means tackling the demand for opiates. Although 90 per cent of world heroin comes from Afghanistan, the vast majority is consumed in western countries. Blaming Afghan farmers for the problem is as hypocritical as it is ineffective.

Reducing the cultivation of poppies in Afghanistan begins not on the streets of Kandahar, but on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Fortunately, such policies exist. Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site, offers a real first step toward reducing poppy cultivation. This small storefront provides drug users with a sanitary and safe place to inject in the presence of registered nurses. The result: 21 peer-reviewed studies document how Insite diminishes public drug use, reduces the spread of HIV and increases the number of users who enter detox programs.

But Insite does more than get drug use off the street. It is a portal into the health-care system for addicts who are too often shut out. Drug users who visit Insite are an astounding 33 per cent more likely to enlist in a detoxification program. Indeed, Insite has added a second facility, called Onsite, that capitalizes on this success by allowing drug users to immediately access detox and drug treatment services on demand.

Sadly, the Harper government remains ideologically opposed to Insite. It is unclear if the federal government possesses the legal authority to close the site but there is significant concern it will attempt to do so within six months.

The Conservatives should be looking to scale Insite nationally, not contemplating its closing. A national network of injection sites could dramatically reduce heroin use in Canada by channelling more drug users into drug treatment programs. Diminishing the demand for heroin would in turn devalue the poppies from which it is derived. Changing this economic equation is both safer and more effective than fumigation if the goal is shifting Afghan production from poppies to legal crops. Admittedly, Canada’s share of the global consumption of heroin is relatively small, but our success could provide a powerful and effective example to the international community.

To many Canadians, Afghanistan is a world away. But the lives of drug users outside Vancouver’s Carnegie Centre and those of our soldiers in Kandahar are bound together – linked by the international opium trade. What we do in Afghanistan shapes events in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and vice versa. Canada’s soldiers, drug users and ordinary citizens deserve a government that recognizes this reality.

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