Pubdate: Thu, 15 Nov 2001
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2001 The Vancouver Sun
Author: Francis Bula
Bookmark: (Safe Injecting Rooms)


Health Minister Praises Vancouver Mayor For His Courage To Develop Drug Policy

Federal Health Minister Allan Rock is ready to put up the money for a 
pilot safe-injection site for drug users and to create the legal 
framework necessary for it to operate, if that's what Vancouver and 
B.C. want. He is also ready to provide the full weight of his 
support. "We will do everything we can to facilitate pilots in cities 
across the country if those cities decide this is part of the 
strategy that they want," Rock said Wednesday in Vancouver. Rock, who 
praised Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen for his courage in pushing 
Vancouver to develop a comprehensive drug policy that includes harm 
reduction, said he personally believes the country needs to do more 
to reduce the damage done by drug addiction. "We don't do enough as a 
country to deal with drug addiction as a harm-reduction issue," said 
Rock, who toured the Downtown Eastside twice in the '90s when he was 
justice minister. "It was obvious to me [then] that this is not a 
law-enforcement issue.

This is an issue of people who are ill. They're in the grip of an 
addiction. "They've lost control of their lives and they have 
secondary illnesses, everything from hepatitis to HIV/AIDS and it 
serves very little purpose to put those people in a [police] wagon, 
take them to a cell, haul them to a criminal court, engage them in 
the criminal process, sentence them in the usual way, incarcerate 
them, unless you're going to do something about the underlying 
illness of addiction." Rock said Owen, who has politically 
spearheaded the attempt to find new solutions to Vancouver's massive 
drug-addiction problem, is outstanding. "It's hard to find an example 
in recent Canadian memory of a mayor who has really stood out as 
someone prepared to take on, head on, the single most difficult, 
complex issue he faces.

He's taken a lot of heat over it. I just think he's been terrific." 
Rock's office let it be known last week that the minister was on the 
verge of announcing his willingness to support safe-injection sites, 
as long as four local bodies -- city council, health board, 
provincial government and police -- were willing to provide written 
support for the idea. That news attracted considerable criticism and 
concern, with people saying it was unreasonable to ask police to say 
they support breaking Canadian drug law. But Rock said he is willing 
to create a legal framework, similar to the exception Health Canada 
has created for the medical use of marijuana, that would make it 
legally possible for drug addicts to use their drugs in an approved 
site. But he needs to know that the local police department supports 
the concept. Vancouver police Inspector Kash Heed, in charge of the 
vice and drug unit, said the Vancouver police board will be making a 
decision on what to do about that requirement. "It's not the police's 
job to set social or medical policy." Rock said the federal budget in 
December may be the biggest stumbling block to funding a 
safe-injection site and to funding other innovative proposals for 
drug prevention and treatment that might come out of Vancouver. Since 
the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, the federal government has had to 
rethink its spending plans. It would cost about $980,000 a year to 
fund a comprehensive safe-injection site that included counselling, 
research, medical staff, and $130,000 worth of evaluation, according 
to a model that has been developed by a Vancouver community group 
lobbying for safe-injection sites.

A less comprehensive facility that was attached to an existing site 
could probably be run for about $650,000 a year, says Thomas Kerr, 
who researched the issue for the Harm Reduction Action Society. Rock 
and his staff have been pushing to bring out a new national drug 
strategy, one that is closely aligned with Vancouver's comprehensive 
drug strategy. It will emphasize the four key areas Vancouver has in 
its policy: law enforcement to prevent the manufacture and 
distribution of drugs, prevention, treatment and harm reduction. 
Health Canada has already agreed to contribute one-third of the cost 
for two years of a special "secretariat" in Vancouver -- a central 
office that will coordinate the efforts of the three levels of 
government to rehabilitate the Downtown Eastside and, in particular, 
to steer the drug initiatives through.

If Rock gets what he has been asking for from the federal budget for 
a national drug strategy, that secretariat could then get a pool of 
money that could be used to fund pilot projects in treatment, 
prevention and harm reduction. But Rock emphasized throughout his 
interview that he is not going to go to any city asking its leaders 
to consider a pilot safe-injection site. "I understand how strongly 
held the opinions are of people who own property, who run businesses 
and live in this city with respect to some of these issues. Allan 
Rock, who happens to have a riding in Toronto and who spends a lot of 
his time in Ottawa, is not about to tell those community members how 
they ought to organize their lives when it comes to a very difficult 
and complex issue like drug abuse on their streets." For Vancouver's 
mayor, that creates a difficult political position. Owen has always 
said he does not want Vancouver to be the only city in the country 
with a safe-injection site. He and his staff had been pushing for the 
federal government to initiate a national pilot project in six to 
eight cities. Now, if Owen wants company, he will have to convince 
other Canadian mayors to stir up a hornets' nest of controversy in 
their own cities.
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