Pubdate: Mon, 03 Oct 2011
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2011 Winnipeg Free Press


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

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

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.
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.