A ‘signal’ from Harper on drug enforcement

But his campaign pledge raises questions about federal anti-drug strategy

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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to supporters during a rally in Montreal, Quebec, Canada August 2, 2015. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday called a parliamentary election for Oct 19, kicking off a marathon 11-week campaign, the longest federal election campaign in recent history. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi – RTX1MS1E

(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Sometimes a campaign-trail platform pitch seems too predictable to spark much interest, but it turns out to be well worth mulling over. So it was on Tuesday, when Stephen Harper announced that a re-elected Conservative government would implement “a 20 per cent increase in funding for the RCMP’s clandestine laboratory teams to target the production of illegal drugs, including grow ops and meth labs.”

No surprise there, at least, not in Harper’s tone. He meant, of course, to bolster the Tories’ tough-on-crime messaging, and highlight the contrast between himself and Justin Trudeau, who advocates legalizing and regulating marijuana. Still, there was something odd about it. Asked exactly which RCMP spending envelope the Conservatives are promising to expand by a fifth, the party’s media office confirmed it’s the $20-million-plus a year allocated to the force’s special teams working to shut down meth labs and grow ops.

What’s puzzling about this is that the RCMP has evidently had trouble in the past spending the whole budget made available for these very enforcement operations. The latest full-year Treasury Board figures I could find, for 2012-13, show planned spending on the RCMP’s clandestine labs teams at $22.5 million, while actual spending was $17.3 million. That follows the consistent pattern of previous years, such as the $26.2 million in planned spending in 2011-12, of which only $18.9 million was spent.

Why would the Conservatives feel the need to substantially boost the budget of a police program that hasn’t managed to spend the money already provided? I asked the Tory campaign this question. “These additional resources,” came the response from the party’s election media office, “are a signal that we will prioritize targeting drug production and distribution and will help the RCMP focus on this problem.”

The money is “a signal”? I guess that gets at the purpose of announcing something like this on the hustings. But I’m not sure how specifying what signal Harper wants to send to voters helps us understand whether or not the RCMP really needs this funding, or can effectively put it to use. (I’ve asked the RCMP and will update this post with any useful answers I get.)

Related: Our primers on the election’s big issues, including crime

This is just one of many questions worth posing about the National Anti-Drug Strategy that Harper was talking about, more broadly, when he made Tuesday’s promise.

Harper launched the national strategy with some fanfare in the fall of 2007, bringing more than $500 million in spending over five years by a dozen federal departments and agencies under one umbrella. An internal government review of the program’s first five-year phase suggests it didn’t always run smoothly. One glaring line of data in that report: Of $109 million in planned spending for Health Canada’s drug treatment funding program from 2007-08 to 2010-11, only $43.9 million was actually spent.

On that subject, the Conservative party’s campaign media office made a point of telling me that planned spending for drug treatment is benefiting from additional funding. The precise wording from the party, however, is this: “From 2007 to 2012, the PM’s anti-drug strategy has allocated over $190 million in treatment, and an additional $150 million for 2012-2016.”

It seems that, after earmarking $190 million for treatment in the first five years of the strategy, the total treatment budget for the next five years was cut to $150 million, about 20 per cent less. I’m not sure if sharply reducing the funding available for ongoing drug treatment programs should be described as providing “additional” money. (Also keep in mind that recent history has shown there’s a big difference between the funds allocated and the money actually spent.)

Treating addicts has always been an awkward fit with the Conservative approach to drugs. Under the previous Liberal government, Health Canada was assigned the lead role in anti-drug policy. Harper changed that early on, putting Justice Canada in charge, in keeping with his view of illegal drugs as, first and foremost, a law-and-order challenge, rather than mainly a health issue.

It’s hard to gain a feel for the whole sprawling anti-drug strategy. It spans multiple departments and agencies, with programs that stretch from courtrooms to clinics. Nobody seems to have a comprehensive overview. Once in a while, from the murk of budget reports and bureaucratic assessments of the strategy, a glimmer of progress shows through.

In 2013, for instance, after years of pleading from addiction experts, the government finally expanded the National Anti-Drug Strategy to include combating prescription drug abuse—previously excluded for no good reason. (Alcohol abuse is still, inexplicably, not covered by the strategy.) As well, after the first five years of the strategy, the government quietly cancelled its histrionic “DrugsNot4Me” TV campaign, mercifully ending the airing of ads that experts in youth drug use had criticized for featuring the sort of scare tactics that teenagers tend to laugh off.

So, progress on at least some elements is possible. Overall, though, serious questions remain about the government’s heavy emphasis on enforcement and the level of its commitment to treatment. This week’s campaign pledge confirmed again the signal Harper wants to send, but did little to clear up the noise about what’s really going on with these key federal programs.