By Tom Blackwell

The Liberal government used its first foray into the global anti-narcotics arena this week to signal a clear shift from the war on drugs philosophy, promising more safe-injection sites, promoting “harm reduction” and touting its plan to legalize marijuana.

The speech by Hilary Geller, an assistant deputy minister of health, caused a stir at the generally staid Commission on Narcotic Drugs conference in Vienna, observers said.

The audience of government and non-governmental organization officials from around the world “erupted in applause” mid-way through the address and gave a prolonged ovation at the end, said Jason Nickerson, an Ottawa-based researcher who is attending the meeting.

The talk not only contrasted with the Harper government’s international stance on drugs, but stood out from the cautious pronouncements most other nations made, said the Bruyère Research Institute scientist, who favours more liberal policies. “There are some countries here that are coming out and saying important, progressive things,” he said. “But it’s certainly not as explicit as what Canada is saying.”

A Conservative opposition critic had a different reaction, sounding the alarm about Geller’s prediction of more government-sanctioned injection sites – where opioid users can use illicit intravenous drugs under a nurse’s supervision.

While the Supreme Court of Canada ruled such sites legal, the Conservatives passed legislation requiring extensive public consultations and other measures before they could be set up, said Rob Nicholson, the party’s justice critic. “Drugs that are used at these injection sites, mostly heroin, are dangerous and addictive and they kill Canadians,” said the former justice minister. “I disagree with the idea they are safe. There’s nothing safe about taking heroin.”

Nicholson also stressed that the Conservatives invested hundreds of millions of dollars in drug-abuse treatment and prevention.

Still, the Harper government was generally tough on the issue, implementing mandatory-minimum jail sentences for some trafficking offences and beefing up police narcotics enforcement.

On the world stage, it opposed having international conventions embrace harm reduction, programs that focus on preventing the side effects of illegal drug use — like HIV infection —  rather than prosecution.  

That put the Conservative government in league with some of the world’s most authoritarian states, said Richard Elliott, head of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

Under Harper, Canada also failed to condemn the death penalty for drug offences, enforced regularly by nations like Iran and Indonesia, he said.

Geller stressed this week her government opposes capital punishment “in all cases.”

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