Challenge to Insite a shame

Bob fed the heroin habit he picked up in prison by selling stuff out of a shopping cart on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Bob fed the heroin habit he picked up in prison by selling stuff out of a shopping cart on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

His life changed for the better after meeting a staff member from Insite, North American’s only legal supervised injection site.

Located in the heart of one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods, the facility helped the 50-something find assistance, rent an apartment and visit a doctor, who prescribed him methadone as an alternative to street drugs.

Months later, Bob spent more time looking for work than his next fix and was weaning himself off methadone.

Bob’s change for the better is one of almost a dozen profiled in Insight: Stories from the Supervised Injection Site. It was published in 2006, three years after the facility began operating under a temporary exemption from federal drug laws.

Since then, Insite has offered more than 12,000 clients a safe, clean place to use their drugs — mostly heroin, cocaine and morphine. Professional nursing staff are on hand to provide first aid in the event an overdose, while addictions counsellors, mental health workers and other staff direct clients to community services.

The facility has been the subject of more than 30 studies that have appeared in reputable journals, such as the British medical journal The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, among others.

These studies have concluded the facility provides a range of benefits, including fewer overdoses and greater use of detox services.

Insite has helped people like Bob turn their lives around. Why, then, is the federal government so adamant that it must be shut down?

In short, the Conservatives consider Insite to be an “abomination” and that its harm reduction strategy is a sham.

It back up its assertions with an article by Colin Mangham, director of research for the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, which challenges the findings of other studies while concluding Insite has failed to have an impact on drug use on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

What the government fails to mention is that Mangham’s article was commissioned and financed by the RCMP and published on a spurious website alleged to be “posing as open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal.” The article itself was dismissed by more than 130 scientists as “fraught with a host of outright factual inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims.”

The International Journal of Drug Policy went one step further, concluding that the federal government’s decision to base its objections to Insite on such flawed evidence could be construed as “a serious breach of international scientific standards.”

This week, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and five of his predecessors issued an open letter to the Conservative government to reconsider its opposition. They firmly believe the facility saves lives, reduces the transmission of deadly diseases and increases the use of addiction treatment.

One former mayor, Phillip Owen, fears Insite’s closure would result in a return to 1990s Vancouver: a city characterized by rampant public drug use and rapid spread of HIV infections.

When public support failed to persuade the Conservative government to grant Insite a permanent exemption, the organization that operates facility with provincial funding turned to the courts.

Portland Hotel Society argued that Insite is a health-care facility; therefore, it falls under provincial jurisdiction. The B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeal agreed.

The Conservatives appealed that decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, which will begin hearing arguments this week for and against the continued operation of Insite.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court will decide Insite’s fate. That is, unless the Conservative government comes to its senses and accepts the scientific evidence and public support for Insite.

Withdrawing its appeal and granting the facility a permanent exemption from federal drug laws would allow Insite to focus on its clients rather than fighting for survival.

If not, then the Conservative government should outline its plans for Insite’s clients.

During a speech to the Canadian Medical Association in 2007, former health minister Tony Clement suggested harm reduction could take many forms, including prevention, treatment and enforcement.

Given that the Conservative government is set to spend up to $10 billion over the next five years to reform the country’s prison system, Insite’s clients can expect to spend more time behind bars and less in detox.

And that’s no option at all because it would create a new generation of addicts like Bob who could benefit from the services provided by a facility like Insite.

Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.