Pubdate: Tue, 24 May 2011
Source: Regina Leader-Post (CN SN)
Copyright: 2011 The Leader-Post Ltd.
Author: Dan Gardner, The Leader-Post


A scene that said much about Prime Minister Stephen Harper unfolded
recently in the Supreme Court of Canada.

At a hearing about Insite, the supervised drug-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 in prestigious,
peer-reviewed medical journals showed 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

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
the decision on Insite's future would not be guided by politics or
ideology. The evidence would settle it. But as evidence of Insite's
effectiveness mounted, the Conservatives' hostility to it never
wavered. They wanted to close it then. They want to close it now.

What we witnessed at the Supreme Court was nothing less than a naked
admission that Stephen Harper's government doesn't give a damn about

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
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 bloodborne 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.

Or so it was hoped. Similar facilities in Europe - where the
"harm-reduction" philosophy is widely accepted - 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

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
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 public health officials
argued that law enforcement had failed badly. They wanted to try
different approaches that we today call harm reduction.

The police disagreed, insisting 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 cops got their way. Harsh new laws - including a
seven-year mandatory minimum sentence for importing drugs - came into
force in the early 1960s. But drug consumption and trafficking soared.

In a paper published a few years ago, 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 goes to law enforcement.

And Harper is fine with that. In fact, he wants more of the

But that modest, inexpensive, rigorously studied, scientifically
validated, life-saving program in Vancouver? He wants it closed.

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