Pubdate: Fri, 27 Jan 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Page: A12


When Ottawa recently announced a multi-pronged strategy to fight the
deadly fentanyl crisis - a strategy that includes supervised drug
consumption sites - Health Minister Jane Philpott boasted of "our
renewed, evidence-based approach to Canada's drug strategy."

If Ottawa is so keen on an evidence-based approach to drugs, why did
it walk away from mediation aimed at settling a lawsuit calling on the
government to provide needle exchanges in prisons? Mediation sessions
were scheduled this week but Ottawa's lawyers backed out at the last
minute. The lawsuit, brought in part by a former inmate who acquired
hepatitis C behind bars, is going forward.

For readers who are muttering, Needle exchanges in prison?! You've got
to be kidding, please bear with us.

Drugs in federal prisons are a real problem, in spite of Correctional
Service Canada's zero-tolerance policy. A 2012 study by Parliament's
Standing Committee on Public Safety noted that illegal narcotics find
their way over the wall in all sorts of way, including in the handbags
of mothers who can't say no to their addicted child's pleadings. It is
simply unfeasible for CSC to lock down a prison to such a degree that
no drugs will ever get inside.

The problem is that inmates using injectable drugs share the limited
number of contraband needles and syringes available to them. People in
federal prisons are consequently far more likely to acquire AIDS/HIV
or hepatitis C than the general population. They arrive in prison
healthy and leave with chronic diseases that cost society millions of
dollars to treat. Sometimes, they die.

The best approach, then, is to implement harm-reduction measures.
Needle exchanges, which are common in Canadian cities and not
particularly controversial, help limit the spread of infectious
diseases, and save lives and money.

But prisons are not miniature versions of society. People can't just
come and go, no questions asked. In effect, the advocates of prison
needle exchanges are asking for something more controversial - safe
injection sites, where addicts take illicit drugs in a monitored
environment that is exempt from Canada's Controlled Drugs and
Substances Act. That's a big ask for a prison system, and it probably
explains why Ottawa is wrestling with this issue.

The government must acknowledge, though, that harm-reduction programs
are cost-effective, according to numerous studies. They can also be
safely operated in prisons, according to the real-life experiences of
other jurisdictions around the world.

And they are just. Incarcerated addicts shouldn't be denied the health
protections that are available to everyone else. The government should
have faith in its evidence-based approach, and bring harm reduction
inside prison walls.
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