Canada's killing fields

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Quickly: which community records the highest HIV rate in the western world? Answer: Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

This small section of the jewel of Canada's western-most province harbors more poverty, misery and death than any other part of the western world.

That's hardly a record the nation voted the best to live in by the United Nations five years in a row can be proud of.

Earlier this week, residents of Downtown Eastside demonstrated against the lack of government action in the face of the appalling death rate from illicit drug use in the area.

Between 1988 and 1998, there have been almost 2,500 deaths in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as a result of drug overdoses. Nearly 1,000 of those deaths have occurred in the last three years.

To draw attention to this horror story, demonstrators unfurled a banner, declaring East Hastings Street "The Killing Fields" and erected 2,000 crosses in a nearby city park.

The situation is indeed desperate and something needs to be done. Bud Osborne, a spokesman for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, has some suggestions.

First, he says, we must stop looking at illicit drug use as a criminal problem and consider it a health problem instead.

"We need a largely expanded methadone program, safe injection sites, heroin maintenance and a variety of treatment models," Osborne says.

"We're not talking about wild, experimental stuff here. We're talking about practical solutions that have worked in Switzerland and Germany and other places in Europe."

Not that there haven't been concrete suggestions how to go about solving the problem. In 1994, Vince Cain, then chief coroner of the province, recommended the legalization of all drugs as a first step to coming to grips with the drug problem.

Cain is not some starry-eyed latter-day libertarian. He is a former high-ranking RCMP officer who is not given to turning a blind eye to crime. But he, too, stressed that drug use is not a criminal problem but one of health.

Legalizing drugs isn't going to eradicate drug use, but neither will it necessarily increase it. We are not talking about selling drugs at 7-Eleven, but tight government control over free drug distribution to known addicts.

There is a well-documented precedent. During the prohibition years in the U.S., alcohol addiction actually increased. When alcohol became legal again, the addiction rate fell sharply.

One of the biggest problems of drug use is the criminal activities to which users are forced to resort to pay for the exorbitant prices of illegal drugs.

Once addicted, they are virtually forced to steal, rob, sell their bodies to feed their habit. I'm referring to hard drugs in this column, not pot, the illegality of which is nothing short of ludicrous to begin with.

For years, we have been brainwashed by the war on drugs fought with spectacular lack of success by the United States. The war on drugs has become a billion-dollar industry with no profits accruing to the average citizen.

The only ones who profit from it are the private-sector consortia who have built a myriad of jails that must by kept full. Kept in business by a powerful lobby and an assured stream of inmates, they fear an end to the war on drugs like he plague.

For the rest of us, the decriminalization of drugs would have enormous benefits, not the least of which would be a sharp drop in the crime rate.

Too bad Ottawa is so far away and the federal government so out of touch with reality, they might as well be on another planet.

My dollar against your dime Jean Chretien, the prime minister, has no clue that the western world's most deadly drug killing fields are in his own country.