Pubdate: Wed, 28 May 2008
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2008, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Rod Mickleburgh, With reports from Sunny Dhillon, Cathryn 
Atkinson and Gloria Galloway
Referenced: The ruling
Bookmark: (Insite)


VANCOUVER -- North America's only sanctioned safe-injection site for
drug addicts won a major court victory yesterday, thwarting any chance
of the federal Conservative government closing it down. Mr. Justice
Ian Pitfield of the B.C. Supreme Court granted users and staff at the
popular but controversial facility known as Insite a permanent
constitutional exemption from prosecution under federal drug laws.

Allowing addicts to inject their illegal drugs in a safe, medically
supervised environment is a matter of sensible health care and they
should not be under threat of being busted by police, the judge ruled.

In so doing, Judge Pitfield also declared that sections of Canada's
drug laws against possession and trafficking in illegal narcotics were

However, he gave the government until the end of June next year to
redraft them in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and

The ruling is narrow in scope and not expected to lead to widespread
loosening of the laws against heroin, cocaine, marijuana and other
illegal drugs.

But it was clearly a stunning reprieve for Insite.

The fate of the facility in the heart of Vancouver's drug-ravaged
Downtown Eastside had been up in the air over fears that federal
Health Minister Tony Clement would withdraw its legal exemption at the
end of June.

Critics have accused the Tories of having an ideological bias against
allowing the injection of illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine
despite numerous scientific reports extolling the positive benefits of

But Judge Pitfield stripped the decision from Mr. Clement's hands,
calling drug addiction an illness and applauding Insite's philosophy
of harm reduction aimed at saving lives and curbing the spread of
infectious diseases.

"While there is nothing to be said in favour of the injection of
controlled substances that leads to addiction, there is much to be
said against denying health care services that will ameliorate the
effects of their condition," said Judge Pitfield in his landmark,
59-page decision.

He rejected arguments from the federal lawyers that drug use was a
matter of individual choice and it was up to the government whether
addicts at Insite should be immune from prosecution.

"Society cannot condone addiction, but in the face of its presence, it
cannot fail to manage it, hopefully with ultimate success reflected in
the cure of the addicted individual and abstinence," Judge Pitfield

"Simply stated, I cannot agree with Canada's submission that an addict
must feed his addiction in an unsafe environment when a safe
environment that may lead to rehabilitation is the

Supporters of Insite, which enjoys strong backing among politicians,
police and health-care providers in the city, were overjoyed by the

"It's very exciting, and a great relief for the staff," said Mark
Townsend of the Portland Hotel Society, which helps operate Insite and
brought the case before the courts.

"This means they can now go about their business without some monkey
on their back, stemming from some weird ideology in Ottawa."

The addicts who crowd the facility every day now have one less thing
to worry about, Mr. Townsend said.

"This means we can stay open and hopefully there will be no more of
this silliness from [the federal government]. It's all very exciting."

Lawyer Monique Pongracic-Speier, who argued the case on behalf of
several drug addicts and the Portland Hotel Society, said the ruling
has the potential to be a real watershed in treating injection drug

"Clearly, Canada has lost on this issue. The court accepted evidence
that Insite provides a vital health care service to people who need
it," Ms. Pongracic-Speier said.

"To the best of my knowledge, this is the first ruling of its kind,
certainly with respect to the use of heroin and cocaine."

She added that the bold judgment by the court may open the door to
similar facilities elsewhere in the country.

Essentially, Judge Pitfield decided that applying federal drug laws to
Insite users while they are at the facility interferes with their
constitutional right to life, liberty or security.

He outlined a litany of problems addicts face, including drug
overdoses, HIV infection, syphilis and prostitution, all of which
Insite attempts to curb.

Once an individual is addicted to injection drugs, they are no longer
using them for recreation, Judge Pitfield said. Their addiction
becomes an illness that needs treatment.

He compared their plight to alcoholics and those hooked on cigarettes,
problems recognized by society even though the substances are legal.

"Society neither condemns the individual who chooses to drink or smoke
to excess, nor deprives that individual of a range of health care
services," Judge Pitfield reasoned.

"I cannot see any rational or logical reason why the approach should
be different when dealing with the addiction to narcotics."

A spokesman for Mr. Clement said the federal Health Minister is
studying the decision and would have no immediate comment.

Since Insite opened in 2003, more than a million injections have taken
place at its 12 cubicles.

The facility is open 18 hours a day, and staff describe it as the
busiest such clinic in the world. 
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