Jody Paterson, Special to Times ColonistPublished: Friday, November 28, 2008
David Bratzer and I share at least one opinion in common: That it costs us a pointless fortune to maintain the charade of having effective drug laws in Canada.
It's no big deal that I hold that opinion. Anyone who knows the kind of things I write about wouldn't be too surprised to discover I'm of the belief that Canada and the U.S. have made a complete hash of things by treating a health and social issue like a criminal matter.
But Bratzer holding that opinion, that's a little different. He's a Victoria police officer -- one of those tasked with enforcing those laws.
I suspect there are many more who think like Bratzer inside the department, as you would expect from anyone charged with patrolling Victoria's ridiculous streets for any length of time. But it's still not a view that's expressed publicly by police very often.
In fact, Bratzer, a constable, is one of only two active police officers in Canada who does public speaking on behalf of the U.S.-based non-profit organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). He signed on three months ago after clearing it with his boss, and now aims to put some of his off hours to use speaking to people about why drug prohibition doesn't work.
"LEAP's position is that a lot of the problems we're seeing aren't caused by drugs, but rather the unintended consequences of drug prohibition," says Bratzer, citing public health problems, violence and a gang-controlled drug market as examples.
Bratzer came to the same conclusion after three years of policing the streets of Victoria.
"The effort that we put into chasing drugs -- it's bottomless," he says. "Canadians have put billions and billions into fighting the war on drugs, but at the end of the day they're cheaper, more potent and more available than ever before."
Wanting an end to prohibition has nothing to do with liking drug abuse, notes Bratzer. But ceding control of an arbitrary assortment of drugs to gangs and criminals simply isn't working as a strategy. The LEAP website (www.leap.cc) tracks U.S. "drug war" spending by the minute; at $2,000 every 60 seconds, spending for 2008 is already more than $46 billion.
Canada doesn't officially have a war on drugs, with federal authorities preferring to describe our efforts as "demand and availability reduction." We're not quite so jail-crazy, nor so prone to lock up people indefinitely at great cost and to little effect.
But we still spend a heck of a lot on drug enforcement in Canada -- more than half a billion dollars a year. And if the goal of all that spending is to wipe out trafficking and the use of illegal drugs, then anyone with eyes and 15 minutes to hang out in the downtown can see that it's not working.
"The LEAP strategy is to build a bureau of speakers modelled on Vietnam Vets Against the War. That group was effective because they had the credibility of having been there," says Bratzer. "What LEAP believes is that once people hear from those in law enforcement about the multiple harms caused by drug prohibition, they'll change their minds."
Bratzer is careful to point out that his views are his own, and not those of the Victoria Police Department. He also stresses that the solutions lie in slow, measured steps that remove drug laws and replace them with good public policy.
"I don't support drug abuse, and I don't support breaking the law. I know it all has to be about baby steps," says Bratzer. "My message to the marijuana lobby is to aim higher, because if marijuana becomes legal but all the others remain the way they are, there's still a lot of harm being done."
Bratzer's view is that "soft" drugs should be taxed and sold, similar to alcohol and tobacco. Harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin would be available as prescription drugs and "consumed in a monitored site" as part of a harm-reduction program.
"I think every doctors' office should be a needle exchange," he adds.
Bratzer knows his decision to go public with his views might not sit well with some of his co-workers at the department. As of this week, he's also got a new boss to consider: Chief Jamie Graham.
"I'm not saying police should stop being police," says Bratzer. "I have a lot of respect for my fellow police officers, and am not trying to shove this down their throat.
"But at the end of the day, I didn't want to work as a police officer for 30 years and end up feeling like this was an issue I should have spoken up about sooner."