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Legal Battle Continues Over Safe Injection Site

by Archives October 7, 2008

Canada’s Conservatives are risking the future of the country’s anti-drugs laws by pursuing a legal challenge against North America’s only supervised injection facility, say the group’s advocates.
The Conservative government has recently appealed a court decision in favour of keeping Insite open.
Since coming to power in 2006, the Conservative government has attempted to shut down Insite, a safe injection facility in Vancouver’s downtown east side. Insite operates on an exemption from Canada’s drug laws, granted by the previous Liberal government. The exemption allows users to have and use drugs at the site. It also allows the facility’s staff to come into contact with illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, without the fear of prosecution.
In May of 2007 the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that Insite was allowed to stay open, without requiring an exemption from federal drug laws, and found Canada’s Controlled Drugs Substances Act unconstitutional, on the grounds that it denies treatment to drug addicts.
If the federal government doesn’t amend the law to bring it in line with the court’s ruling in the next nine months, it will be struck down. The federal government has instead decided to appeal the court’s decision. The court date has been set for April, raising the possibility that the Conservatives could lose the appeal after the June deadline, causing Canada’s drug laws to expire automatically.
“This was never our intention and I think that’s very reckless of Harper and Clement,” said Dr. Daniel Small, director of the Portland Hotel Society Community Services, one of the agencies that run Insite.
“We’re confident that the judge’s ruling will hold up and that Insite will be safe,” said Small. The program has the support of the Vancouver Police Department, and both the municipal and provincial governments.
Harm reduction activists say there is a wealth of scientific evidence supporting Insite, but that Harper’s government opposes it for ideological reasons.
“They just don’t like it and they ignore evidence and scientific results,” said Gillian Maxwell, a harm reduction activist who spoke at Concordia on Oct. 3.
“It doesn’t fit their [worldview] of how things would be, and they think people who use drugs are wrong and bad and should be punished. It is an old way of looking at things.”

Even if the court ruling holds, a Conservative government could prevent further harm reduction facilities from opening in other communities, such as Montreal. Early in the summer the Quebec government announced that they were considering setting up a facility in the city, but in late August Health Minister Yves Bolduc walked away from the plan, allegedly under pressure from Ottawa.
Insite was created in response to an HIV/AIDS epidemic among intravenous drug users in the downtown east side of Vancouver. In 1997 the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, a provincial government agency, estimated the infection rate at 27 per cent among injection drug users.
Heather Hay, director of Addiction, HIV/AIDS and Aboriginal Health Services for Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), a provincial agency that runs Insite along with PHS, described the downtown eastside of Vancouver as “the poorest postal code in Canada.”
Because of their lifestyles, addicts are at increased risk for other diseases, health agencies in B.C. estimate that as many as 90 per cent are infected with hepatitis C. BC’s chief coroner reported that 40 per cent of needle exchange clientele were illiterate, making harm reduction programs one of the only methods to dispense health care information.
“It doesn’t make sense to just let [addicts] get really sick because they become a big drain on the health care system,” said Maxwell. VCH estimates that each heroin addict not receiving drug treatment costs the medical system $49,000 a year. For patients suffering from HIV/AIDS costs are estimated at $225,000 a year.
Small said the scientific debate over the merits of harm reduction programs is over, an assertion echoed in Maxwell’s lecture. “The World Health Organization, the Red Cross, different parts of the UN, including the Secretary General are all on record saying harm reduction is essential in order to fight HIV/AIDS, particularly with injection drug users.”
Small, Hay, and Maxwell all agree that the Conservative opposition to the program is purely ideological.
“We must acknowledge the need for harm reduction programs and realize that accepting harm reduction as part of a strategy does not mean condoning the use of illicit drugs,” said Hay. “It means accepting that drug use does and will occur . . . it means recognizing that abstinence-based strategies are often impractical and ineffective in dealing with the street entrenched drug scene.”

More coverage in features: Full interview with Gillian Maxwell

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