Pubdate: Mon, 03 Oct 2011 Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB) Copyright: 2011 Winnipeg Free Press Contact: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/send_a_letter Website: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/502 FIRST DO LESS HARM TO ADDICTS The Supreme Court of Canada on Friday shredded the Harper government's vacuous arguments for shutting down North America's first government-sanctioned safe-injection site and ordered Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to immediately exempt Vancouver's Insite from federal drug laws. It was the third time a panel of jurists has ruled against Ottawa and its bewildering agenda to close a clinic that has cut disease and death among thousands of addicts in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. After five years of fighting, the staff at Insite now can simply concentrate on doing their job. It is not easy work. Most Canadians can be led to see the value of a clinic that opens its doors to addicts who otherwise share needles to shoot up in darkened doorways and alleys. But how many could tolerate the sight of a pregnant woman frantic to find a good vein to deliver another hit of cocaine? Instinctively, Canadians expect swift intervention to protect the vulnerable. Resisting instinct and suspending judgment is fundamental to getting the job done at Insite. Drug users are inherently distrustful of authorities, especially those who arrive with a dose of tough love, and the Harper administration's approach to Canada's drug problem reinforces their suspicion. Ottawa, simplistically, wants to take away the thing that means most to addicts. Foundational to the belief in harm reduction is recognizing that the disconnect between those who make laws and those who break them predicates more destruction -- a user will reject a helping hand if it requires giving up the drug. Pregnant women have most to lose, most reason to hide. Unless the threat of arrest or detention is removed, you won't get near the mother-to-be and the chance to intervene in the smallest way for the most vulnerable is lost. The Supreme Court was led by the common sense that has defied successive health ministers in an administration led blindly by the belief that drugs are evil, and it was time to declare "the party's over" (as did then-minister Tony Clement) for users. The Vancouver clinic makes no claim to treat addiction as it does not offer such services. It provides sterile needles and supervises safe injection by users who bring their own supply, and it offers rudimentary health services, detox beds and referral to other agencies. Insite was opened in 2003 as deaths from overdose were on a dramatic rise in Vancouver. It followed the lead and evidence of benefits of sites in 70 cities in six European countries and in Sydney, Australia. The most convincing research, however, has flowed from the results at Insite itself. This spring, a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the clinic had cut the deaths from overdoses in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Ottawa has played deaf to this endorsement, clinging to its edict that harm reduction under a Harper government would involve only prevention, treatment and enforcement. The government intended to shutter Insite, yanking a ministerial exemption that gave immunity to addicts walking into the clinic with drugs. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act makes possession of a narcotic illegal, but allows a ministerial exemption for medical or research purposes, or in the public interest. What appeared patently obvious to many Canadians about the broader interest of public health was swept aside by the Conservative government bent on a misguided war on drugs that regarded the intractable misery of addicts as an issue of personal weakness. Other proposals for clinics in Canada have awaited resolution of the legal fight that the federal government has prolonged unnecessarily, at an expense far greater than the evident drain on the public treasury. The Harper administration's useless attack on a proven public-health service may have served its own political interests, but it has only compounded Canada's mounting losses in this "war on drugs." It is time now Ms. Aglukkaq exercised her duty as health minister and let those who know how best to fight addictions to fight the good fight. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.