Health Canada Says Drug Laws Contribute to HIV Spread, Should be Reviewed
With little "fanfare," Health Canada, Canada's federal health department, last Thursday posted to its Web site a report that says injection drug use should be treated as a "health and social issue," not a crime, and calls for a review of the country's drug laws "because they contribute to the epidemic spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C among injection drug users," the Toronto Globe and Mail reports (Picard, Globe and Mail, 9/1). The report was posted in response to a 1999 study conducted by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and commissioned by Health Canada that called for "sweeping changes to Canadian drug policies," including the creation of "safe injection sites," prescriptions for heroin and cocaine and the "decriminalization of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use" (Petrou, National Post, 9/1). Although the new report does not address the recommendations described in the Legal Network study, it does call for a "close examination" of the nation's drug laws and states that there is a "need to reduce barriers" for people who want to receive addiction treatment. Health Canada estimates that as many as 125,000 Canadians inject drugs and more than a third of the nation's new HIV cases are found among injection drug users. Treatment for HIV-positive drug users will cost $14.7 billion over the next five years, with more than that amount going to treat those with hepatitis C (Picard, Globe and Mail, 9/1).
Reaction to the Report
Ralph Jurgens, executive director of the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said the government report "make[s] a lot of good statements and acknowledgements, but is not a plan and there is no timeline" for recommendations. Nina Arron, policy coordinator for the HIV/AIDS division of Health Canada, said that the government is "willing to consider alternative policies," but added that undertaking and finishing the "necessary research" could take awhile. "We're not running away from it, maybe moving a little slower than the Legal Network and others would like," she said (National Post, 9/1). Canadian Alliance MP Randy White, who is vice-chair of a parliamentary committee on illegal drugs, called the report an attempt to "legalize hard drugs," although he did acknowledge that there are problems with the nation's drug policy. "What's really lacking is rehabilitation, which is abysmal, and intervention, which includes education and treatment, and then a consistent enforcement system," White said (Globe and Mail, 9/1). Possession of heroin or cocaine can result in a prison sentence of up to seven years in Canada. A drug-trafficking conviction is punishable by life in prison (Canadian Press, 9/1).