Supporters fear injection site may not survive
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, September 22, 2008 6:33PM PDT
Backers of North America's only facility where injection-drug users can shoot up under a nurse's supervision are accusing the federal government of ignoring what they say are the place's proven benefits for ideological reasons.
Insite marked its fifth anniversary Monday on Vancouver's drug-ridden Downtown Eastside, but its future remains unclear amid continuing criticism from federal Conservatives.
The Liberals, meanwhile, seized on the anniversary to announce that if elected next month, they would ensure Insite has the funding and legal protection it needs to keep operating.
Insite was initially approved by a Liberal government and its pilot-project status has been extended under temporary federal permits since then. The facility is now embroiled in a court case aimed at preventing Ottawa from shutting it down.
Supporters, including prominent researchers and physicians, say the Tories are clearly against the concept of giving addicts a safe, clean place to inject their drugs.
"They want this issue to go away, and the only way that it can go away is if it's stalled long enough so that they have a majority and they basically do what they always wanted to do, which is to close the site," said Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and president of the International AIDS Society.
Health Minister Tony Clement was not available to comment Monday. A spokeswoman referred a reporter to a speech he gave to the Canadian Medical Association's annual convention last month.
In that speech, Clement questioned aspects of doctors' support for a harm-reduction drug strategy, and said the supervised injection site has created a "slippery slope."
"Is it unethical for health-care professionals to support the administration of drugs that are of unknown substance or purity or potency, drugs that cannot otherwise be legally prescribed?" he asked. "I feel our government is now drawing the line in a place with which Canadians are comfortable."
At a news conference at Insite, located near one of Vancouver's big open-air drug bazaars, an angry Montaner said the government's handling of the issue amounts to criminal neglect.
"When you neglect purposely a percentage of the population that can be defined on the basis of a particular characteristic, that's genocide, and that's exactly what they're doing," he said.
"These people, they have no morals and they are after this population because they want them gone, and that's not acceptable."
Criminologist Neil Boyd, who researched Insite's effect on crime rates and drug use for Ottawa, said the government has spun the cautiously positive report of its own advisory committee on Insite to suit its ideological position.
"We have a government in Ottawa at the moment that's driven by dogma and that's seemingly impervious to evidence-based social policy," the Simon Fraser University professor said.
Researcher Thomas Kerr, of the B.C. Centre for Excellent in HIV/AIDS, has conducted more than two dozen studies on Insite. He said proponents knew from the outset the facility would be controversial, so research has been rigorous and published only in top international, peer-reviewed journals.
Among other things, Kerr said studies have shown that Insite has reduced the dangerous practice of sharing needles, helped avert overdose deaths, increased the number of people referred to detox and addiction-treatment programs, and helped cut public disorder and violence against vulnerable women.
"When Tony Clement attacks Insite, he makes up his own facts and he cites work that even his own expert advisory committee refused to consider because it had no merit," Kerr said.
If Insite had completed its pilot phase within its first three years, it could now be offering expanded services, perhaps including somewhere for crack addicts to smoke the drug safely, he added.
Lorne Mayencourt, Conservative candidate in Vancouver Centre, adjacent to Vancouver East where Insite is located, said he favours an approach that emphasizes steering addicts towards recovery rather than providing a safe haven.
"I was an early supporter of Insite," said Mayencourt, a former member of the B.C. legislature. "I helped to get provincial funding when the feds wouldn't give us any money to run it."
Insite has done a good job of getting addicts access to health services, said Mayencourt, who's challenging longtime incumbent Liberal Hedy Fry.
But he said there's less evidence the facility cut the Downtown Eastside's Third World-level HIV-infection rates, calmed its chaotic streets or moved significant numbers of addicts into recovery.
Mayencourt said he would like to see Insite focus more on long-term recovery approaches similar to one used by a facility he set up in Prince George, B.C., that emphasizes life skills and vocational training.
"When they (Insite) get into the recovery business I have a great, great passion to support them," he said.
"When Insite is doing that, it's worth Canadian government dollars."