Sunday, November 30, 2008

Local police officer takes a stand against drug prohibition

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.
Me holding that opinion: No big deal. 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 just a little different. He’s a Victoria police officer - the one tasked with enforcing those laws.
I suspect there are many more who think like Const. Bratzer inside the department, as you’d expect would happen to anyone tasked 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 is one of only two active police officers in Canada who does public speaking on behalf of the U.S.-based non-profit, 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 of that.
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 Web site ( 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.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Early-morning street tour speaks volumes for what hasn't changed

Giant box of day-old doughnuts: Check. Three big jugs of coffee and a whole lot of sugar and cream: Check. Final essential item: Two packs of cigarettes, enough for one smoke each for the first 40 people Rev. Al Tysick sees on his regular morning rounds.
He goes out every weekday morning at 5:45 a.m. to wake up people sleeping on Victoria’s streets. He started doing it seven months ago, after funding changes at the rebuilt Our Place street drop-in resulted in shorter opening hours. He buys the cigarettes with his own money, because getting a free smoke in the morning means a lot to people.
“It’s like taking a bottle of wine to a friend’s house,” says Tysick as he parks the Our Place van at our first top on 800-block Fort Street. “That’s what we’re doing this morning: We’re going to their house.”
Tysick’ wake-up call is a kinder, gentler version of the one that people will get an hour later, when police do their own morning rounds to flush the homeless from the downtown alcoves and hidey-holes where they sleep. It’s a doomed exercise: No shelter or drop-in is open anywhere in the city at 7 a.m., so there’s no place for people to go.
I’ve offered to be Tysick’ assistant on this particular morning, which entails keeping the coffee flowing and the doughnut box replenished. His rounds barely stretch over three square blocks, but he knows he’ll see at least 40 people even so. He knows, because the cigarettes always run out.
It used to be he could find a lot of people on Cormorant Street, but nobody goes there anymore after the heat came on this spring and the needle exchange was ordered out. Now, they go half a block further east, to the steps of the Ministry of Housing and Social Development building - the “Ministry of Love,” as it’s wryly referred to on the streets.
A year ago, I spent several weeks looking into street issues for the Times Colonist, and came out of it hoping against hope that what I’d seen was one of those “darkest before the dawn” periods. There was nowhere to go but up, I figured.
But in the morning dark outside the welfare ministry this week, handing out coffee to a growing line of people emerging from the shadows, I saw it wasn’t so. Yes, some positive things have happened this past year - more mats on the floor, more support and outreach, even a little bit of housing. But you’d never know it by the way things look on the street.
I’ve met many good people through my involvement with the Mayor’s Task Force and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. Some very smart, caring minds are hard at work right now unravelling the issues tangling up people on the street. One day down the line, the efforts of the coalition are going to bring about real change in terms of how we manage street issues.
But what’s to be done until then? Even if we could start 20 new housing projects tomorrow, they’re years away, and the current downturn in the economy certainly won’t speed that process. What’s the plan for the short term?
If there was an earthquake this week and 1,500 people were left homeless, you know how our community would respond. We’d blow right through whatever policy, zoning bylaw or jurisdictional issue was in our way, and get every one of those people indoors by nightfall. Done.
We need that same kind of response around homelessness. We need an emergency plan in place at the provincial level that puts people indoors immediately. We need something like a refugee camp, where people can live indoors and be connected with support services until something better can be worked out.
Not more shelter beds, but a place where people can live indefinitely until something more permanent is available. A place where the police aren’t always gunning for you, and there’s room to store your stuff. To get out of the weather. To stay out of harm’s way.
Admittedly, any place where several hundred distinctly different people had to co-exist under one roof would almost certainly be chaotic and challenging. In any kind of sane world, no one would consider the temporary warehousing of masses of complex and impoverished people.
But this isn’t a sane world. And a refugee camp for those on the street isn’t nearly as crazy an idea as just leaving them out there. One early morning outside the Ministry of Love is all it takes to remind me of that.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Media wrong to conspire in hiding kidnapping news

Best wishes to Mellisa Fung, the intrepid CBC reporter who was released last week from what must have been a horrific and traumatic month imprisoned in a cave in Afghanistan.
She’s safe, and I’m very glad to hear that. But what are we to make of recent word that the world’s media reached a private agreement to keep her kidnapping a secret until now? With no disrespect to Fung or those who wanted to keep her safe, I’m stunned by the news.
As happy as we are to have Fung back, the truth is that most of us didn’t even know she was missing. That’s because in a most unusual development, the global media agreed from the outset not to report on her high-profile kidnapping.
It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the moment and see the media’s decision as evidence of the industry finally thinking about whether it’s helping or hurting with the way it covers the news. “We must put the safety of the victim ahead of our normal instinct for full transparency and disclosure,” CBC News publisher John Cruikshank said of the international decision to keep Fung’s kidnapping secret.
But why now? Why just this once? If we keep people safer by suppressing the news of their kidnappings, then why the wide-open, no-holds-barred coverage of all the other cases of kidnapping that have taken place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan in recent years? What made the media act differently this time out?
On first blush, you might presume that what’s different this time around is that a journalist is the victim. A quick search through five years of electronic newspaper archives puts that one to rest, however. Media outlets around the world continue to report all the details of the many kidnappings going on these days, including of journalists such as Alberta’s Amanda Lindhout, missing in Somalia since August.
So what’s special about the Fung case? Was it that she worked for the CBC? That she had friends in high places? That the federal government was two days away from an election at the time of her kidnapping?
The Globe and Mail wrote several thousand interesting words on the subject in Monday’s paper, but I never did find the answer.
Media bosses interviewed in the Globe piece were clearly aware that they’d done something very unusual in maintaining silence for a month about Fung’s kidnapping. They argued that they chose that course out of fear that Fung would be killed. Canadian Press policy on news about kidnapping and terrorism states “no news story is worth someone’s life,” CP editor-in-chief Scott White noted.
Absolutely. But how often has the same courtesy been extended to other kidnap victims? From my experience, virtually never. Poor Amanda Lindhout’s kidnapping was being loudly reported around the world within hours of her disappearance four months ago. What’s different this time?
“Editors exist to exercise their discretion about what should be published and in what way,” comments Globe editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon in his paper’s piece.
Fair enough. But with such power comes the responsibility to do so with excruciating fairness. Media integrity hinges on the public’s perception that news is reported with more or less of an even hand.
That’s a vital principle. The industry earns the public’s trust by treating every person at the centre of a news story in identical fashion. The idea is that we’re all equal before the media, for better or worse.
If the decision to keep Fung’s kidnapping a secret is the start of a more self-aware media recognizing the impact that thoughtless coverage can have, count me in. But I sense a one-off, available only to national CBC journalists kidnapped on the eve of federal elections. Numerous kidnappings happened while Fung was missing, the vast majority reported in the usual way by the world’s media.
I can’t imagine how Lindhout’s parents must feel right now, having experienced a dramatically different news curve when their own daughter was kidnapped. Revelations that the media cared enough to remain silent about Fung must have left them concluding that Lindhout’s safety simply didn’t matter as much.
From Nov. 14: Thanks to readers for passing along a few Web sites where people can find candidate information heading into Saturday’s municipal elections.
For West Shore residents, the West Shore Chamber of Commerce features candidate profiles at The Saanich Civic League has put together a very comprehensive site for Saanich residents at Then there’s, and blogger Bernard von Schulmann’s
See you at the polls.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Voting a crap shoot at municipal elections

In just over a week, we’ll pick the mayors and councillors who will lead B.C. communities for the next three years.
It’s an incredibly important job. We “hire” municipal councils to tend to dozens of vital tasks in our communities - from dog-catching and parking tickets to policing, planning, roadwork and economic development. A single term of bad council can turn a community on its ear for years to come.
Councils also play an important role in representing our interests at the provincial and federal levels. Municipalities generate a scant eight per cent of the total tax base in the province, so we all want councils that are strategic and clued-in to ensure they’re effective at “managing up.”
You’d think that the hiring process for a big job like that would be done with the utmost care. You’d think we’d be really conscious of wanting to pick the right people to lead our communities.
But you’d be wrong. In truth, 70 per cent of us won’t even show up to vote in many B.C. communities, based on voter turnout from the 2005 municipal elections. Even those of us who do will often have no real sense of who we’re voting for.
Just 27 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls last time out in the City of Victoria. In Saanich, where the mayor was acclaimed in 2005, turnout was 19 per cent. Only Metchosin and North Saanich saw anything approaching a respectable voter turnout in our region, and even that was a minimal 50 per cent.
Turnouts in the 2005 municipal/regional elections throughout B.C. were 25 to 35 per cent in most communities. (Go to for individual results).
Voter turnout on much of Vancouver Island was below 30 per cent. Tahsis and Alert Bay saw remarkable turnouts that topped 90 per cent, but those communities were notable exceptions in an otherwise dismal year.
As for whether those scant voters made the right picks in 2005, all we have is our councils’ accomplishments these past three years to help us come to a conclusion about that.
That’s never an easy thing to measure. We don’t ask our incumbent politicians for proof that they did a good job. Nor do we often have enough information to gauge whether the newcomers clamouring for our votes will make things better or worse. I suspect I’m not alone in heading into next Saturday’s election with much uncertainty as to who to vote for.
It’s up to each of us to get informed, of course. In Esquimalt, where I live, nothing is stopping me from contacting each of the candidates myself to see what I can ascertain, because at least I’ve managed to find all their e-mail addresses on the Township of Esquimalt Web site. But that’s hardly an efficient way to inform the most number of voters.
The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce has a helpful “meet your candidate” feature on its Web site for the four core communities, at
There’s a brief resume-style summary of each candidate, followed by their answers to five questions on topics including economic development, tax rates and top priorities. A sixth question asks about an issue specific to a particular community (sewage in Oak Bay, homelessness in Victoria, etc.).
But the Chamber can’t insist candidates take part, so the listings are incomplete. Only one Oak Bay candidate has bothered to post a response. Half of the City of Victoria’s eight mayoral candidates haven’t posted responses. And with only four municipalities included on the site, two-thirds of the region’s electorate are out in the cold at any rate.
The Times Colonist has begun community profiles, but can’t devote the space and resources required to feature each of the 100-plus candidates running for a seat in our region. As for all-candidates forums, most are unsatisfying affairs unable to give candidates more than a minute or two to state their case.
Small wonder, then, that local candidates have been inundated with questionnaires from people trying to figure out how they’ll vote. How else to determine who to pick?
The lack of meaningful engagement goes a long way to explaining why so many of us just give the whole process a pass. Yet to think we’re now electing our local governments based on the largely uninformed choices of a quarter of the eligible voters - well, that’s kind of scary.
There has to be a better way. But until we figure it out, it’s head-first into another crap shoot. I’ll see you at the polls Nov. 15, and we’ll just have to count on luck to take it from there.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Silence is golden, and frighteningly rare

I look at birds differently these days than I used to, ever since getting a great pair of binoculars a couple years ago that opened my eyes to the incredible variety of birds out there.
But I quickly learned that if you really want to see birds, the trick is to stand still for a few minutes and listen. In the stillness, life goes back to normal in the spot you were just about to rush past, and you hear a whole lot of bird talk that you’d never have heard otherwise.
That there’s meaning and purpose in silence is hardly a new philosophy. But it took birds for me to find it, and to remind me of how much of the world we no longer hear simply because we’re drowning it out with our own noise. What will the future hold for this cranked-up, hyper-communicating world of ours if we forget that?
There are days at the bird marsh when the sounds of loud cell phone conversations are just about as common as those of the song sparrow. We’re living in a time when “staying in touch” has morphed from a sweet sentiment about human connection into a jangly way of life that smothers the silences under a din of ringing phones and buzzing Blackberries.
I made the mistake of taking my cell phone with me once on a bird walk - once and never again. I hadn’t expected it to ring, but it did, and I was mortified to be the one disrupting other people’s nature walks.
Choosing not to answer, I then wondered for the entire walk back who it was who had called, as if it made one whit of difference. The only thing that being available for constant communication does is ensure that no time is ever really your own.
I regularly see people interrupting their lunch dates - important ones, romantic ones, it makes no difference - to take a call. I see them digging wildly through their purses and pockets to answer the ceaseless calls of people who simply have to talk RIGHT NOW.
I overhear the most personal conversations everywhere I go, conducted at top volume by someone who I’m quite sure has no idea of how widely they’re disseminating the news of their breakup, medical problem or weight gain. I’ve been in the midst of what I thought was a genuinely engaged discussion with someone only to realize that in fact, they’re sneaking in text messages to someone else.
Until Jack Knox got his Blackberry (why, Jack, why??), I hadn’t realized that the cursed devices buzz every time an e-mail arrives, prodding you into thinking that yes, you’d better answer right now.
Sounds like a genuine nightmare to me. But researchers say they’re finding that wired-up Canadians have actually begun to “crave the idea of access to a world of information,” and to associate their ringing phones and Blackberries with feelings of importance. “Being plugged in validates your importance,” noted Solutions Research Group in a report last March.
The private consumer-research and consulting firm, which conducts surveys four times a year on the communication and technology habits of Canadians, noted rising levels of anxiety in its spring report when people were asked about being unable to use the Internet or their cell phones.
Almost 60 per cent of the 3,100 people SRG surveyed reported experiencing “disconnection anxiety” at the thought of being left out of the communications loop, even temporarily.
“It’s almost like you lose your sense of freedom because you can’t just call someone,” explained one respondent in the Fast Forward survey.
“It’s like you are cut off. You’re just a little person walking around. You might as well be in the 1800s, like you don’t have contact. We are so used to having that with us nowadays, it is like security.”
Just 10 years ago, less than a third of Canadian teens and adults had cell phones. Now, almost 70 per cent of us do - 19 million people. In just four short years, Blackberries and other “smart phones” have emerged from obscurity to rule the lives of more than two million Canadians.
That the din from all that communicating renders us deaf to the small pleasures of life that are audible only in the silences - well, that’s a given. But what else are we no longer able to hear over the din of our constant chatter? How is it possible to think deeply about anything amid all this noise?
The lesson of the birds: Take in the silences once in a while. You’ll be amazed at how much you can hear.