I’m inspired when people have the courage to stand for what’s best for all humanity, especially when it means acknowledging societal outcasts or going against your group’s popular ideology. The Supreme Court of Canada and former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen did just that.
Owen was Vancouver’s mayor in the 1990s when drug use, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and overdoses led to a public health emergency declared in the downtown eastside. Crack cocaine had hit the streets and hundreds were dying. Health officials and many others argued for a harm-reduction strategy.
Owen knew that such a controversial approach would not go over well with his conservative political party. But he did a remarkable thing: he met with hard core addicts.
In a Globe and Mail interview, Owen shares his experience with reporter Gary Mason:
“I went in there and said, ‘I’m your mayor and I’m here to help’,” Mr. Owen recalled. “I’d like to hear your stories. Tell me about your drug use. Tell me about your family. Do you have a place to sleep? And as I listened, I was just blown away as they chatted about their personal lives. That was it for me.”
Owen’s political colleagues were horrified when he became a promoter of the four pillars drug strategy: Prevention, Treatment, Harm Reduction and Enforcement. This helped pave the way for the creation of Insite, North America’s first sanctioned, safe injection site.
In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada just voted unanimously 9-0 in favour of Insite continuing to operate. The judges acknowledged the inherent value and human rights of those addicted to drugs.
This got me thinking about how we make decisions concerning crime and justice.
The municipal and provincial government support Insite. Stephen Harper’s federal government was trying to shut it down.
The judges found that the Minister of Health, in denying Insite an exemption from illegal drug possession law, “contravened the principles of fundamental justice”. They said that preventing drug addicts from accessing the health services of Insite threatens their lives, which ironically undermines the purpose of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act— the protection of health and safety.
We need to separate the person from their behaviour. While we can condemn harmful behaviour, we still need to treat individuals with dignity and respect. Insite does not provide drugs. It monitors injection and gives clients information, counseling and referrals as part of a continuum of care.
The possession and trafficking of illegal drugs remains, well illegal. But there is also a recognition that drugs can take a terrible toll on people’s lives.
The Supreme Court’s ruling went on to say:
- “The effect of denying the services of Insite to the population it serves and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to injection drug users is grossly disproportionate to any benefit that Canada might derive from presenting a uniform stance on the possession of narcotics.”
I’m thrilled with the recognition that a “uniform stance” is not just or wise. We don’t need blanket approaches to criminality, like mandatory sentencing. Rather, we need to consider each case and the parties involved, and tailor our responses to achieve desired results. This is what restorative justice does.
What’s it going to take for us to put aside our political, ideological positions and really listen to and learn from each other? It’s vital to let go of a war on drugs and a war on crime (and a war on anything for that matter – haven’t we learned?). Aren’t we tired of the typical battle lines?
Let’s create a vision of where we want to go and look at our options, listen to each other’s stories, weigh the evidence, uphold human rights, use common sense, and build consensus for a sustainable future.