Pubdate: Wed, 18 May 2011
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2011 The Ottawa Citizen
Author: Dan Gardner


A scene that said much about Prime Minister Stephen Harper unfolded 
last week at the Supreme Court of Canada.

At a hearing about the legal status of Insite, the supervised 
injection site in Vancouver, a lawyer representing the federal 
government acknowledged the facility had been granted a federal 
exemption from drug laws under a clause that permits scientific 
study. Insite is an experiment, in other words.

"And it worked," observed Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

A long list of scientific research papers published in prestigious 
peer-reviewed medical journals showed that Insite had done exactly 
what it was designed to do. Overdose deaths down. Rates of HIV and 
hepatitis C infection down.

"Lives are being saved, diseases are being prevented by this site, 
and are we putting too fine a point on it by saying the site has 
nothing to do with it?" McLachlin asked the federal lawyer.

"In the end, this program somehow, while not being perfect, works," 
interjected Justice Louis LeBel. "Have you evidence that tends to 
demonstrate that this program doesn't work?"

The lawyer's stammered response: "I think that's a fair observation."

So to sum up, heaps of evidence suggests Insite saves lives, while 
the federal government has acknowledged before the Supreme Court of 
Canada that it hasn't evidence to the contrary.

 From the moment the Conservatives came to power in 2006, they 
insisted that the decision on Insite's future would not be guided by 
politics or ideology. The evidence would settle it. But as the 
evidence of Insite's effectiveness steadily mounted, the 
Conservatives' hostility to the facility never wavered. They wanted 
to close it then. They want to close it now.

And so what we witnessed last week at the Supreme Court was nothing 
less than a naked admission that Stephen Harper's government doesn't 
give a damn about evidence.

That would be alarming enough. But to fully appreciate how hideously 
the government is behaving, bear in mind two things: the origins of 
Insite and the nature of the drug policies Stephen Harper does support.

Insite is an experiment born of endless failure. For years, even 
decades, the thick clot of social pathologies in Vancouver's downtown 
eastside neighbourhood only grew. Police sweeps didn't stop it. 
Neither did blockbuster trafficking busts, or the steady flow of 
money into social service agencies and countless publicly funded 
community groups.

In those circumstances, doing more of the same is madness. You have 
to try something new.

Insite was something new, and the idea behind it was simple and 
modest: Give addicts a safe, clean place to inject drugs and the 
damage can at least be minimized. With clean syringes, users won't 
share dirty needles and spread blood-borne diseases. With a nurse 
present, overdoses won't end in death. And when addicts come in off 
the street, social workers can engage them -and try to steer them to 
detox, rehab and, just maybe, getting off drugs for good.

It would be good for the community, too. Fewer needles in parks and 
playgrounds. Less hustling on the streets. Fewer corpses in back alleys.

Or so it was hoped. Similar facilities in Europe -where the "harm 
reduction" philosophy is widely accepted -had delivered excellent 
results. But so many efforts had failed before. This had to be done 
carefully. It had to be monitored. And rigorously studied by scientists.

It was. And the results are clear.

This makes Insite a textbook example of how to do social policy. Try 
something new -but be cautious. Don't assume you have the answer. Set 
up a small experiment. Study the results carefully. If it fails, shut 
it down. And if it succeeds? Obviously, you should keep it going. And 
cautiously expand it to other sites and cities, while continuing to 
carefully monitor results.

Seems only reasonable, doesn't it? But compare that to the drug 
policy Stephen Harper enthusiastically supports: more law enforcement 
and tougher punishment of drug crimes.

In the 1950s, rising rates of heroin addiction in Vancouver (stop me 
if you've heard this one before) prompted a national debate about 
drug policy. Doctors and public health officials argued that law 
enforcement had failed badly. They wanted to try different approaches 
- -approaches which we today would call harm reduction.

The police disagreed, insisting that tougher laws would do the trick. 
They had little evidence to support that claim and they didn't intend 
to study whether tough new laws actually did what they were supposed 
to. But they were sure they were right.

As usual, the police got their way. Harsh new laws -including a 
seven-year mandatory minimum sentence for importing drugs -came into 
force in the early 1960s. A few years later, rates of drug 
consumption and trafficking soared.

That pretty much sums up the long history of trying to deal with 
illicit drugs by ramping up law enforcement and punishment. In a 
paper published a few years ago, Peter Reuter, one of the world's 
leading experts on drug policy, summarized the evidence: "Research 
has almost uniformly failed to show that intensified policing or 
sanctions have reduced either drug prevalence or drug-related harm."

No matter. Every year, huge sums are spent trying to deal with 
illicit drugs and the vast majority of that money goes to law enforcement.

And Stephen Harper is fine with that. In fact, he wants more of the 
same. But that modest, inexpensive, rigorously studied, 
scientifically validated, life-saving program in Vancouver? He wants it closed.

Which says so much about Stephen Harper.

Dan Gardner's column appears Wednesday and Friday.
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