Pubdate: Wed, 05 Oct 2011
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2011 The Ottawa Citizen
Author: Dan Gardner, Columnist, Ottawa Citizen


Let's compare and contrast statements about Insite, the supervised
injection centre in Vancouver's downtown eastside neighbourhood.

"The decision to implement a supervised safe injection site was the
result of years of research, planning, and intergovernment
co-operation," the Supreme Court of Canada wrote in a unanimous
judgment. "It was launched as an experiment. The experiment has proved
successful. Insite has saved lives and improved health. And it did
those things without increasing the incidence of drug use and crime in
the surrounding area."

The court's decision -- effectively ordering the federal health
minister to allow Insite to stay open -- was released Friday. Across
the country, reaction from politicians and police chiefs was immediate.

"I do not support locating a safe injection site in Ottawa, and was
very clear about that in the last election," said Ottawa Mayor Jim
Watson. Any such facility would have "an extreme negative impact" on
the area it was located in, said Ottawa Police Chief Vern White. 

He knows this because he visited Insite, White said. "I certainly 
didn't feel as safe in that area of Vancouver as I did in other areas 
of Vancouver. I've spoken to police officers who will say the same thing."

For the purposes of our compare-and-contrast exercise, recall that
Vancouver's downtown eastside is a small neighbourhood that has been a
disaster for decades. Lots was tried. Nothing worked. Police sweeps,
high-level drug busts, treatment, social welfare. Things only got worse.

By the mid-1990s, HIV and hep C were epidemic and overdoses soared. In
1993 alone, 200 people died.

So Vancouver considered alternatives, including a safe injection site.
It was a radical idea in Canada but scores of such facilities operated
in cities across Europe. Research suggested it could make a difference.

Insite opened in September, 2003. It immediately became one of the
most scrutinized and studied social policy experiments in Canadian

Researchers produced a tall stack of studies published in
peer-reviewed academic journals, including some of the most
prestigious medical journals in the world. The cumulative conclusion?
Insite worked.

The Supreme Court's statement above summarized that evidence exactly.
Insite curtailed overdose deaths. It cut blood-borne disease
transmission. And it did that without increasing crime or disorder in
the neighbourhood.

So the Supreme Court's statement was logical, informed, and supported
by an abundance of topquality evidence.

It's safe to say the same cannot be said about the reaction of the
mayor and the police chief.

The mayor's statement is nothing more than the sort of peremptory
hand-wave a politician does when he wants to change the subject. The
chief at least attempted to support his conclusion with evidence, but
look at the evidence he cited. 

Vern White is sure that supervised injection sites ruin neighbourhoods 
because he felt less safe in the neighbourhood where Insite is located 
than he did in other parts of Vancouver. Other cops feel the same, he said.

I agree, incidentally. I've been to that neighbourhood many times.
It's not a pleasant place. 

But this proves precisely nothing. That neighbourhood was riddled with 
addiction, disease, and crime long before Insite opened its doors. In 
fact, Insite was put there because it was riddled with addiction, 
disease, and crime. Blaming Insite because the neighbourhood is dodgy 
is as silly as saying "wet streets cause rain." Vern White should be 

But that -- believe it or not -- is not the most appalling part of the
chief's comments.

We've got HIV and hep C in Ottawa now. We've got overdose deaths. And
we've got heaps of research from Europe and Australia, and heaps more
from Vancouver, which tell us that a supervised injection site could
help reduce the toll without jeopardizing community safety.

But the chief is opposed. Period. Doesn't want to talk about it. Case

Ditto for Jim Watson. His mind is made up. As he said, he was "very
clear about that in the last election." So that's the end of it.

To be clear, skepticism is fine. You're not sure a supervised
injection facility is a good idea? You want to see more evidence and
think carefully about it? Good. 

That's reasonable. But the mayor and the chief aren't skeptical. Their 
minds are welded shut. They don't want the evidence gathered, 
reviewed, and discussed. They want people to shut up about it.

For almost a century, mayors and police chiefs have enthusiastically
supported drug-law enforcement, no matter how much research showed
that enforcement is futile and destructive, while they arbitrarily
rejected alternatives supported by solid evidence. 

Open the yellowed pages of a newspaper from the 1980s or 1970s. Or the 
1950s. Even the 1920s. You'll find mayors like Jim Watson taking the 
easy way out. You'll find police chiefs like Vern White insisting that 
wet streets cause rain.

You'll find federal ministers who refuse to question their politically
convenient beliefs. You'll find ordinary people angry that the status
quo has produced disease, crime, and death -- and who demand that
officials do more of what they have always done and not try anything

On and on it goes, down through the years, and decades. Only the names
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.