Friday, November 14, 2008

Why not just give confirmed addicts their drugs

The “tough-punishment” crowd came to mind when I heard the Victoria police had caught three people smoking crack cocaine this week. They were parked in the police department lot. The police station is a distinctive - and attractive - building. And the parking lot almost always has some marked police cars in it. So the trio - two men and a women - weren’t confused about where they were. They were bringing something to a friend in cells. But they decided to do drugs before venturing into the police station. An officer noticed a car full of smoke and knocked on the window. They rolled it down to talk to him, he smelled drugs and the men were charged with cocaine possession and driving while impaired.
First, the case shows how frustrating police work must be some days. Instead of fighting crime, officers are social workers and counsellors for the troubled, like people who smoke cocaine in the police station parking lot and are surprised to be arrested.
Second, it reveals the laughable flaw in the argument that tougher sentences will make any real difference.
People who smoke drugs outside a police station don’t think about whether they will get a conditional sentence or jail time. They don’t assess consequences. If they did, the probably wouldn’t be drug addicts. (So, teach your children about choices, consequences and reasonable risk.) They are likely the people smashing their way into your car in a parkade or stealing your bicycle. Tougher sentences are not going to make them change their ways.
That should be the objective. It would be great if, in a moment of clarity, they realized that stealing was wrong and decided never to do it again because it must hurt the victims.
But really, it’s OK if they just stop.
That’s not the approach we take, though. Prescribing an effective heroin substitute for a long-term addict who just can’t or won’t quit makes practical sense. He or she is healthier, safer, less likely to go to jail, more likely to be living an orderly life - and to enter treatment. And less likely to be committing property crimes every day to get drug money. The NAOMI project reported last month on a thee-year trial in Montreal and Vancouver that tested the effect of prescribing both heroin and a heroin substitute for confirmed addicts. (Participants had to have been through treatment unsuccessfully twice; the mean age was 40 and they were pretty much considered impossible to treat.)
By any rational measure, prescription heroin and heroin substitutes made sense. After a year in the program, almost 90 per cent of those prescribed heroin or Dilaudid - the chemical substitute - had entered treatment or weren’t using heroin illicitly. (Only 54 per cent of those on a methadone program succeeded in achieving the one-year clean period.)
Those who stayed on the program spent far less money on drugs of any kind. The median monthly spending fell from $1,500 - or $50 a day - to $400. The number of participants who said they had committed crimes was cut in half, from 70 per cent to 36 per cent.
And the study found no negative effects, for individuals or communities. Other studies have shown similar results for programs offering substitutes for crystal meth and cocaine.
No one is comfortable with the idea of people using drugs. But in health terms, heroin does far less damage than alcohol or tobacco. The problems are mostly related to the struggle to get and use drugs illicitly, not the substances themselves.
It would be wrong to make drug use too easy for people for whom treatment could likely be successful.
But that leaves several thousand addicts in B.C, who could be helped through prescription drugs - and several hundred thousand fewer crimes each year in B.C. and far fewer customers for drug-supplying gangs. How could this be a bad thing?
Footnote: The other remarkable failure is our efforts at prevention. Drug education programs have been out there for almost 40 years, but alcoholism and other substance issues have increased over most of that period. What we are doing doesn’t work, but we seem unwilling to change.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lobbying, and just being helpful

Last month, Patrick Kinsella - among the most influential of Campbell backers and co-chair of the last two Liberal campaigns, drew attention to the emptiness of B.C.'s lobbyist rules when he simply refused to co-operate with an investigation into potential Lobbyist Act violations. The law as written gives Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis - theoretically the watchdog - no authority to ask questions, Kinsella said.
Now the intrepid Sean Holman of the 24Hours free newspaper and his own website,, has reported other intriguing activities involving Kinsella.
The consultant sat in on meetings with then solicitor general John Les and gambling industry representatives who wanted to push mini-casinos and VLTs into smaller communities. Kinsella wasn't paid, the industry says. He was just being helpful. The industry has donated more than $40,000 to the party since 2005. (The investigation into land development issues that forced Les from cabinet in April is apparently grinding on.)
The activities, explored by Holman here, raise interesting questions about lobbying, government relations and political donations. in this

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

FOI cover up, or isolated mistake - your call

Children's Minister Tom Christensen says it was a mistake. Yes, his ministry violated freedom of information law and tried to hide reports that children who had been sexually abused weren't getting needed help.
But it was an honest error, he says, not a cover up or attempt to avoid the release of information embarrassing to the government.
You decide.
Back in June 2007, Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines filed a freedom of information request with the Ministry of Children and Families. There were signs of problems with a program that was supposed to help children who had been sexually abused. Kines wanted to know if the problems were real and what, if anything, the ministry had done about them.
It took three months, but he got a response to the FOI request. The material included a report based on a 2006 review of the sexual abuse intervention program.
The report was heavily censored, with paragraphs and pages whited out. The ministry said it was keeping much of the report secret because it was advice to Children's Minister Tom Christensen. The FOI laws give the government the option of choosing to keep such information secret.
Kines is a persistent reporter. He dug up an uncensored copy of the report. And he found that the censorship didn't appear to involve advice to the minister.
Instead, almost anything critical or that revealed problems in services for children who had been abused was kept secret. Positive comments were left untouched.
The ministry hid the report's finding that agencies working with sexually abused children "were unanimous in their view that program funding is insufficient." It removed the finding that the program is a "critical element" of service children, "deserving of a more explicit focus."
And it censored the passage that reported "pervasive view among providers that the program has been neglected by government decision makers over the past several years."
The ministry also blanked out a list of the main concerns expressed by agencies that deliver the program across the province, including a lack of money, low wages for counsellors and limited support for training.
And it hid some recommendations, including a call to "establish appropriate funding" for the needed services. At that time, budgets had been frozen for years.
Christensen he didn't know anything about the censorship. Kines sent both reports to Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis and asked him to investigate the way his request was handled.
And Loukidelis has just reported.
The censorship wasn't justified, he found.
In fact, the ministry had based its decisions on the claim the report was a draft version. Then it said that was a mistake; the report was really in its final form and the law required it to be released.
Even given the claim, Loukidelis called the ministry's decisions on what to keep secret "perplexing." Information that was critical was generally hidden; the same types of information, if positive, were left untouched. The result was a falsely positive impression of the program.
And Loukidelis also noted that the ministry had failed to fulfil another part of its obligation under the act. While freedom of information law allows government to keep some things secret, it doesn't require secrecy.
Government is supposed to consider whether the principle of openness really needs to be abandoned. That didn't happen.
Christensen it was all a mistake. Staff have been added and training improved. The failure was an aberration.
But how can the public rely on that? If Kines had not pushed harder and discovered the uncensored version of the report, the hidden truth would never have been revealed.
And what impact does a system of flagging "sensitive" requests - from journalists, political parties and interest groups - for special treatment have on the process. Earlier this year, Loukidelis raised concerns that government was discriminating against environmental groups using the freedom-of-information process, charging more and moving slowly on their requests.
Aberration, or a culture of secrecy? You decide.
Footnote: The Liberals were the biggest users of the FOI process in opposition and champions of the principle of openness. In government, they have been criticized by lengthening delays and unnecessary hurdles in dealing with requests.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Property assessment freeze bad for many homeowners, says columnist

Don Cayo is one of the people I point to when blogland gets too critical of the snappily named MSM.
He suggests in this column that the property freeze Gordon Campbell announced at the Liberal convention might help owners of high-end commercial properties and, as a result, hurt homeowners.
If the 2008 assessments had gone ahead, Cayo's analysis suggests, home assessments would have fallen. But demand was still good for high-end office/commercials space on July 1, the nominal assessment date. Their assessments - and likely share of taxes - would have increased.