The Terry Project on CiTR #45: Drug Enforcement (The Four Pillars Revisited, Part 5 of 5)

The authors of Vancouver drug policy always wanted to end the ‘War on Drugs,’ but they made a compromise. While their fight against prohibition has stalled, Seattle is forging ahead. Will their compromise get any closer? This is the concluding chapter of The Four Pillars Revisited, our season-opening series on Vancouver drug policy, produced in partnership with The Tyeeand syndicated at the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University.

Subscribe on iTunes  | RSS | Download MP3 | Read in The Tyee

Devinder Thandi has been in and out of prison for the past 13 years for non-violent crimes. Is it time for Vancouver to stop using the courts to solve its addiction problem? (Photo: Gordon Katic/The Terry Project)

Devinder Thandi has been in and out of prison for the past 13 years for non-violent crimes. Is it time for Vancouver to stop using the courts to solve its addiction problem?
(Photo: Gordon Katic/The Terry Project)

The Four Pillars’ underlining philosophy is that drug dependency is a health problem that should be treated — not a legal problem that should be policed. However, its architect, Donald MacPherson, made compromises that further entrenched the role of the criminal justice system in Vancouver’s drug scene. For instance, the Four Pillars recommended a drug court that would offer treatment but still maintain the integrity of prohibitory laws. Further, it recommended an increased police presence in the Downtown Eastside.

“I believe it was really important to have them in the tent,” says Donald MacPherson about the Vancouver Police Department. “I couldn’t see any other way you’d want to do it if you want to get buy-in for certain controversial elements like the injection site.”

MacPherson says that the Four Pillars was advanced for its time. However, if he was drug policy coordinator today, he would push more aggressively for the decriminalization of drugs.

“I think you could do that now. You could really point at prohibition, or the ‘war on drugs,’ or however you want to phrase it,” he says, “but at the time it would have been more of an intellectual exercise.”

Despite the success of the plan’s health initiatives, the federal government has moved towards more punitive criminalization. Larry Campbell, the former mayor of Vancouver who oversaw the opening of Insite, says that Stephen Harper is the number one impediment to the Four Pillars vision.

“We’ve got prisons full and filling. On what? Some guy with six plants of marijuana? Some guy that got caught with heroin? We’re destroying lives. We’re destroying families. And it’s ridiculous. And why is that? Because they’re still living the U.S. model. Well the U.S. doesn’t live that model. They got Colorado, Washington, there’s going to be more (legalizing marijuana). The war is over. Except in Canada.”

On this final installment of our series on Vancouver drug policy, we compare MacPherson’s compromise to a compromise activists and lawyers are making in the city of Seattle.

While MacPherson and the City of Vancouver have stalled in their battle against prohibitionist drug laws, Seattle is forging ahead. Will their compromise do more to end the “war on drugs?”

Bonus Material

Further reading: Was the Four Pillars enough? 

“Beyond Vancouver’s ‘Four Pillars [PDF – UBC only link],'” an article by Bruce K. Alexander that echoes Plato’s idea that addiction is a lifestyle used to fill an agonizing social void. Alexander argues that we must go much further than The Four Pillars, and to do that we need to question how our economic system dislocates and marginalizes people.

Further reading: how does LEAD actually work? The University of Washington’s Katherine Beckett wrote a review [PDF] of the LEAD process in which she demonstrated how the different and sometimes competing interests of LEAD stakeholders (ending racial sentencing disparities, ending the war on drugs, reducing costs) somehow coalesced in a collaborative working relationship.

“Moreover, this collaboration is itself a transformative and productive experience, one that appears to yield a variety of dividends, including a new openness to additional reform ideas”

Further reading: drug treatment courts, a debate. On one side, Ojmarrh Mitchell of the University of South Florida says “I know of no other intervention that produces reductions of recidivism of this magnitude this consistently,” says Mitchell.” On the other side, Richard Elliot of the Canadian HIV/AIDS network says “we shouldn’t accept drug treatment courts as a band aid on a flawed system. We should think about questioning the underlying basis of prohibition in the first place.” Mitchell’s review [PDF – UBC only] shows how the courts dramatically reduce criminal recidivism, while Elliot’s report [PDF] raises important questions about whether the criminal justice system should even have a role to play in this problem.

Further reading: enforcement and the Four Pillars

Researchers at the BC Centre for Excellence tell us that the VPD is treating drug users in the Downtown Eastside better than they have in the past. They are doing less harm.

In April 2003, years after the Four Pillars was passed, the VPD created a “Citywide Enforcement Team” that cracked down on intravenous drug users in the Downtown Eastside. Researchers in Drug Policy [PFD – UBC only] reviewed the effect of the program, and found that it increased anxieties among intravenous drug users, making them less likely to access health care services and less likely to practice safer injection practices.

Also of interest, Thomas Kerr of the BC Centre for Excellence wrote a review [PDF, UBC only] of the health and social impacts of drug market enforcement, finding overwhelming evidence that police practices have been counter-productive.

“A review of the available evidence indicates that drug market enforcement approaches interact with and transform various practices and social dynamics in the broader risk environment of IDU, and thereby constitute a potent source of harm within drug markets. ”

As strong as the weakest pillar: Harm Reduction, law enforcement and human rights [PDF – UBC only link],” by Jonathan Cohen and Joanne Csete, argues that The Four Pillars was pragmatic compromise for having a big enough tent to include the police. They argue that Vancouver needed a human rights response.

‘The document may be described as more political than evidence-based. It is preoccupied with achieving “consensus” without reflecting on whether the consensus result is necessarily the best one for drug users and their communities.” –Jonathan Cohen and Joanne Csete

Click here for the rest of the series.



Find out more about the team that makes this program.

Related Topics


Gordon Katic (@gordonkatic) has been student coordinator for the Terry Project for over two years, and in that time started BARtalk, and the Terry Project on CiTR 101.9FM. A former Ubyssey columnist, and now a student at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, Gordon is trying to use journalism to tell important stories about global issues.