Pubdate: Thu, 19 May 2011
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2011 Times Colonist
Author: Dan Gardner, Times Colonist


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

At a hearing about Insite, the supervised injection site in Vancouver,
a lawyer representing the 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 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

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

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

And so what we witnessed last week at the Supreme Court was nothing
less than an admission that 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 Harper does support.

Insite is an experiment born of endless failure. For decades, the
thick clot of social pathologies in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside only
grew. Police sweeps didn't stop it. Neither did blockbuster
trafficking busts, or the steady flow of money into social service

In those circumstances, doing more of the same is madness.

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. Users won't share dirty needles and
spread blood-borne diseases.

Overdoses won't end in death. And when addicts come in, social workers
can try to steer them to detox and rehab. 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 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. 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.

Compare that to the drug policy Harper enthusiastically supports: More
law enforcement and tougher punishment of drug crimes.

In the 1950s, rising rates of heroin addiction in Vancouver prompted a
national debate about drug policy. Doctors and health officials argued
law enforcement had failed. They wanted to try different approaches.

The police disagreed, insisting that tougher laws would work. They had
little evidence to support that claim and didn't intend to study
whether tough new laws actually worked. But they were sure they were

As usual, the police got their way. Harsh new laws, including a
sevenyear 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. 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

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

Which says so much about Harper. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.