Pubdate: Fri, 01 Sep 2006
Source: Business Edge (Canada)
Copyright: 2005 Business Edge
Author: Monte Stewart, Business Edge
Bookmark: (Safe Injecting Rooms)


Join Advocates Seeking To Keep Facility Open

Business groups say that Vancouver's safe-injection site should 
remain open until long-term solutions are found to help drug addicts 
kick their habits.

They are joining the ranks of AIDS doctors and researchers, social 
agencies, drug addicts and their families in calling on Prime 
Minister Stephen Harper to prevent the three-year-old clinic's closure.

Located in a section of Chinatown within the poverty-plagued Downtown 
East Side (DES), the facility allows addicts to shoot up legally 
inside its walls, but a Health Canada exemption of a section of the 
Controlled Drugs and Substance Act is due to expire on Sept. 12.

"As it stands now, SIS (the safe injection site) is more beneficial 
than detrimental," says Albert Fok, chairman of the Chinatown 
Merchants Association, who has sent a letter to Harper. "It's been 
beneficial to the community and beneficial to businesses."

Supporters and several studies say the clinic, the only one of its 
kind in North America, has prevented addicts' deaths, limited the 
spread of dirty needles that cause AIDS/HIV, and reduced vandalism 
and break-ins in the area already notorious for drug addiction, 
prostitution and crime.

"I would cautiously support it, due to the fact for the past two and 
a half years we have had a decline of users shooting up in a back 
alley or in front of (the former) Woodward's department store or 
something like that," says Fok.

Fok adds SIS has made people more comfortable walking around 
Chinatown and could help attract more customers to the historic area, 
which has seen an erosion of business in recent years. In addition to 
social problems on the DES, Vancouver's Chinatown has had to contend 
with the growth of other Chinatowns in suburbs such as Richmond.

But Fok adds funds must be found to help SIS users end their 
addictions. "Helping them has created good optics on one hand, but 
costs money on the other hand."

The Chinatown Merchants Association consists primarily of 200 
business operators and property owners. Fok says his group has 
enhanced security in recent years and is working with other groups, 
such as the Chinatown and Gastown business improvement associations, 
to promote the area.

The president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association 
(CBIA) is also calling for SIS to remain open.

"If they close the safe-injection site, (the problem) comes back to 
our back lane," says CBIA president Tony Lam.

Lam, who operates a small appliance store, said the clinic has 
resulted in "at least an 80- per-cent cleanup" of lanes. SIS doesn't 
help Chinatown business-wise, he adds, but it's better than pushing 
addicts on to the street.

"Let them have a safe and clean place," says Lam.

Before he was elected last year, Harper indicated he would close SIS, 
but has faced increasing pressure from health and community groups in 
the rest of Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia to 
keep the site open.

Local supporters of SIS also include Mayor Sam Sullivan and former 
mayors Larry Campbell, now a federal senator, and Philip Owen, who 
spearheaded the creation of SIS and subsequently lost the support of 
his Non-Partisan Association party.

According to the peer-reviewed studies on the site, drug users 
complete an average of 600 injections per day at SIS, staff have 
treated 453 overdoses with no fatalities, more than 4,000 referrals 
were made to counselling and other support services, and addicts who 
inject there are more likely to seek detoxification. The facility has 
also reduced the number of syringes discarded on the street and 
curbed needle sharing, which puts a user at risk of contracting 
HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C.

The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) wants 
SIS to remain open, but believes the site is a short-term solution.

"Go with the SIS until there's something better around," says Dave 
Jones, the DVBIA's director of crime prevention services. "The SIS 
saves lives, but it's not the answer."

DVBIA members operate outside the DES, but addicts still commit theft 
in the downtown core to support their habits. But Jones says keeping 
SIS open will do "nothing" positive for businesses.

"The people who are frequenting the SIS are not getting better," says 
Jones. "(And) they're coming into our community to commit these crimes."

Jones, a former Vancouver police officer who served as the downtown 
district's commander for eight years, says a percentage of 
Vancouver's population has been addicted to drugs since opium smokers 
were first reported in the city during its startup days in the 1800s. 
But support agencies are hampered by a lack of detoxification, 
addiction and mental health facilities and affordable housing.

"Putting it very simply, SIS is a gateway to a corral where people 
could get help," says Jones. "The corral hasn't been built yet."

He notes there is sufficient government money available, but nobody 
has yet examined the "social services industry," in which several 
groups provide overlapping services, to re-align it in "a functional way."

The Gastown Business Improvement Association, which previously 
criticized the startup of SIS, is not commenting on whether it should 
close or remain open.

"We don't have enough information on it to have a position," says 
Leanore Sali, the association's executive director.

Since SIS launched in 2003, its nurses and other staff have 
supervised a quarter of a million injections, says Mark Townsend of 
the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), which operates the site. If the 
injections had not occurred there, they would have taken place in 
shop doorways, alleys or other locations on commercial properties, he adds.

"The main benefit is people haven't died," says Townsend.

The site has also helped to reduce "pathetic, annoying" property 
crimes committed by addicts at neighbourhood businesses, he adds.

The PHS plans to keep the site going even if Harper does not extend 
the deadline. "Ultimately, (keeping SIS open) is a no-brainer," says 
Townsend, who calls the federal government's drug policy a "big mistake."

Harper was criticized for not attending the recent international AIDS 
conference in Toronto.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Microsoft founder Bill Gates 
and his wife Melinda, whose foundation recently donated $500 million 
for HIV/AIDS research, were among the guest speakers.

Although Harper holds the final say over the site's future, Ottawa 
does not contribute any funds to the facility, says SIS organizer 
Nathan Allen. The clinic has secured funds from the province and the 
city to stay open for another three years, but those dollars would 
dry up if the federal exemption is terminated.

"I know there are people who would be donating money, that sort of 
thing, but none of that's for sure," says Allen.

Harper has been delaying his decision on SIS until the completion of 
an RCMP-commissioned study by criminologist Irwin Cohen of the 
University College of the Fraser Valley.

The recently released RCMP study says the site hasn't increased crime 
in the area or attracted drug users from other areas of Greater 
Vancouver, which opponents feared it would do.

Cohen studied 25 English peer-reviewed journal articles and 
UN-commissioned reports on injection sites in Australia, Germany, 
Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands for his report, and then 
applied information to outcomes SIS has achieved so far.

"I would say from a research perspective, not from a citizen's 
perspective, the experiment should continue," he said.

- - with files from The Canadian Press
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom