Pubdate: Tue, 18 Jul 2006
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2006, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Rod Mickleburgh
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Safe Injecting Rooms)


VANCOUVER -- The escalating campaign to keep the doors open at 
Vancouver's landmark safe-injection site for heroin addicts has 
reached across the Pacific to Australia.

A group representing more than 100 Australian federal and state 
politicians wrote last week to Prime Minister Stephen Harper 
expressing its strong support for the city's injection site, known as Insite.

The Vancouver facility's three-year legal protection to allow on-site 
heroin use expires on Sept. 12, and the Conservative government, with 
Mr. Harper previously on record opposing the safe-injection site, has 
not committed itself to renewing it.

Nor has the government agreed to any further funds for the ambitious 
research project on the site's impact on injection drug users.

"Our message to your Prime Minister is not to close his eyes to the 
success of safe-injection sites," Australian federal MP Duncan Kerr, 
a former attorney-general, said in an interview yesterday.

"The option of criminalization and drug enforcement is a recipe for 
disaster that drugs will bring to your community."

The letter from the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law 
Reform was released by a remarkably broad-based community group, 
Insite for Community Safety (IFCS), which is pressing the Harper 
government to keep the site running.

"We are trying not to corner them," said IFCS spokesperson Gillian 
Maxwell, "but I am concerned that this is now mid-July and we haven't 
heard anything from the government.

"I think it's 50-50 that they will renew the exemption, and that 
makes me nervous."

Many of those now in favour of Insite once strongly opposed it, 
particularly merchants in nearby Chinatown and Gastown.

"If the site were to be closed, the drug users will be forced back 
onto the streets to administer their habits," Albert Fok, chairman of 
the Chinatown Merchants Association, told Mr. Harper in a letter.

No one backs Insite more than Mayor Sam Sullivan, himself a federal 
Tory supporter, who has gone so far as to call for free heroin for 
drug addicts.

"Vancouver has the most innovative drug policy on the continent," 
said Mr. Sullivan. "Already, we can see less disorder in the streets 
and alleys from people shooting up. It would be a tragedy to move backwards."

Health Canada spokesman Chris Williams confirmed the government is 
still considering the matter.

"We have undertaken an assessment of the research results to date. As 
of right now, we are not committed to any new exemption or any 
further funding," Mr. Williams said.

During a campaign visit to the Lower Mainland late last year, Mr. 
Harper declared that a Conservative government "will not use 
taxpayers' money to fund drug use. This is not the strategy we will pursue."

Mr. Kerr of the all-party Australian parliamentary group said his 
country's five-year-old safe-injection site in Sydney has saved 
lives, while providing a pathway to recovery for long-time addicts.

"It's been reviewed by independent assessors and their conclusion is 
that it is cost-effective and has saved a number of lives."

Vancouver's injection site has had similar, albeit preliminary, results.

So far, there have been 453 incidents of drug overdose at the site 
without a single death. As well, on-site nurses have treated more 
than 2,000 serious abscesses at the facility, easing the strain on 
hospital emergency departments, and 368 heroin addicts have been 
referred to withdrawal programs.

"A lot of evidence is already in and it's clear," said researcher 
Martin Schechter. "The safe-injection site does not increase drug use 
and it does reduce harm."

Dr. Schechter is spearheading a trial, separate from the 
safe-injection site experiment, that studies the effect of providing 
free heroin to addicts.

Stressing that the trial is not yet close to completion, he said many 
users enrolled in the trial now need only about 40 per cent of the 
heroin they previously injected.

"And anecdotally, some have already told us they have given up 
prostitution and reduced their criminal activity," Dr. Schechter added.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman