Tuesday, May 20, 2008

THE BATTLE IS JOINED FOR NORTH AMERICA'S ONLY SAFE INJECTION SITE


Canadian Press reports retired police officers, including one who traveled halfway around the world, are asking the federal government of Canada to keep Vancouver's supervised-injection site running.

Traditional, heavy-handed enforcement methods have been a failure in fighting drug use, they told a news conference on Tuesday.

Three retired cops, either members or supporters of a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, endorsed the Vancouver Insite program which offers addicts clean needles, a safe place to inject and access to counselling and detox.

"We all agree that most of society's problems with illegal substances are not caused by those substances but rather by the over-enforcement of our drug laws through the war on drugs," said Tony Smith, a 28-year-veteran of the Vancouver police.

"We believe that drug addicts should not be treated as criminals but receive non-judgmental medical assistance for their addictions."

Keeping drugs illegal simply provides an opportunity for international traffickers to make huge amounts of money, he added.

The Insite program in Vancouver's blighted downtown eastside operates with an exemption from federal drug laws which expires at the end of next month.

Supporters, including the city's mayor, the provencial health minister, the provincial nurses association and the police chief, support the program. They say it saves lives, encourages the use of detox programs and hasn't lured more crime to the area.

Insite was the first safe-injection site in North America. When launched in 2003, Vancouver, the province and Ottawa supported the program, but it's time will run out on June 30 unless Ottawa elects to extend the exemption.

Federal Health Minister Tony Clement has not announced whether the clinic will be permitted to stay open. The Vancouver Sun says the Conservative Party doesn't want to be seen supporting an endeavour that "sanctions drug use." The paper points out the Party's core support came from those who agree with PM Stephen Harper's strong stand against crime and drug use

Liberal MP Keith Martin from British Columbia told the Hill Times he believes the Conservative government's plan is to try and eliminate harm-reduction from Canada's drug strategy all together. "I believe the government is putting on short-term extensions, so if they get a majority government they can kill [safe injection sites] all together."

Martin, who is also physician, said he worked in detox centres in B.C. on and off for 12 years and that seeing the "ravages of addiction" is what has made him such an advocate of Insite and other harm-reduction strategies.

"If the government fails to allow communities across Canada to have supervised injection, they will be committing murder. They will be allowing people to die that could have been saved," he said. "We have a moral obligation to help drug addicts."

Martin said he believes the Conservative government's opposition to Insite is rooted in an ideological aversion to the concept of harm reduction as a way of dealing with drug abuse, which he said is "appalling." He added: "The government takes an ideological moral position against addicts. I believe it's a medical issue."

Recently the International Journal of Drug Policy published articles by scientists from around the world condemning the federal government for interfering politically with the site's research.

Insite has been the subject of numerous peer-reviewed studies in places such as the New England Journal of Medicine, The lancet, The British medical Journal and the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association. These studies have shown a reduction not just in harm to the addicts serviced but also a reduction in the "nuisance" that these people provide to others.

However, those who oppose the whole concept don't much care for scientific reports. They are on a moral crusade.

But supporters of Insite are on a crusade, too.

A convoy is rolling across Canada right now to raise awareness about the site and increase knowledge about how it saves lives. And to build support to keep it open.

Thomas Kerr, with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, was one of the scientists responsible for the scientific evaluation of the facility.

"The scientific support for this initiative is overwhelming," Kerr said, citing more than 30 published peer-review studies that have supported the program.

"We should not right now be discussing if this facility should continue to operate, we should be asking the next question, which is: "How can we ensure that Canadians living elsewhere can enjoy the health benefits of such a facility?"

What follows is a lengthy article from StoptheDrugWar.org and Drug War Chronicle.

Vancouver's Safe Injection Site Fights for Its Life -- Again

The only officially-sanctioned safe injection site in North America, Vancouver's InSite will have to close its doors June 30 if the Canadian federal government does not extend its exemption from Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. But while the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made no secret of its distaste for the program, it has very strong community, local, provincial, and international support, and its supporters are now engaged in a strong campaign to ensure its continued existence.

Situated on Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, home to one of the hemisphere's largest concentrations of hard drug users, InSite has operated since 2003, when it was granted a three-year exemption by the then Liberal government. With the advent of Conservative government, with its ideological opposition to programs that "encourage" or "facilitate" drug use, InSite's continued existence has been shaky. Twice, the Conservatives have granted the program temporary 18-month exemptions, saying that more research on its efficacy was needed.

But now, after five years of monitoring and evaluation, the results are in: According to peer-reviewed scientific studies, InSite increased the use of addiction treatment services, increased the use of detox services, reduced needle sharing, led to improvement in neighborhood public order and quality of life, resulted in no increase in drug-related crime, prevented overdose deaths, and helped reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS among drug injectors.

As if the nearly two-dozen studies of InSite were not enough, the Conservative government last year commissioned its own study, "Vancouver's INSITE service and other Supervised injection sites: What has been learned from research?," which was released in early April. According to Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd, who was hired by the government to advise the committee overseeing the study, the research shows that InSite has no apparent negative impacts, has resulted in "modest decreases" in drug use, and has not disturbed public order.

In fact, said Boyd at a press conference announcing his findings, InSite should not only be continued, but the program should be expanded to other locations. "I think our data suggests... the building of additional facilities of a similar kind in neighborhoods where they are needed would yield benefits much in excess of the costs required for such projects," he said.

That's unlikely under the Harper government, which is ideologically opposed to such harm reduction practices and in fact removed funding for them from its anti-drug budget. As Harper put it last October: "Because if you remain an addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you're going to have a short and miserable life."

Harper has also scoffed at empirical evidence when it conflicts with his agenda. In a January speech to party faithful, he mocked opponents who cited falling crime statistics in challenging his emphasis on law and order. "They try to pacify Canadians with statistics," said the prime minister. "Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem."

More recently, Health Minister Tony Clement and his underlings have sounded similar themes. Science would not be the only factor in determining whether to continue InSite's exemption, Clement's undersecretary, Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher told The Canadian Press earlier this month. While the government would make a "rational and thoughtful decision based on science," it must also take into account "the realities of the situation," Fletcher explained. "There's multiple sides to this and they all have to be taken into consideration," said Fletcher.

When pressed in parliament by Vancouver East MP Libby Davies, a staunch InSite supporter, Clement vowed to make a decision before June 30 and responded to her criticism about rejecting the science supporting the program: "We are the government that actually wants more research, that actually commissioned more research because we want to make sure this decision is the right decision for Canada, for addicts and for the community in Vancouver," he said. "That is the decision we have made, more research and more consideration. That is because we are open-minded and we want to make the best decision for Canada and Canadians."

Now, as the June 30 deadline looms, InSite's supporters have mobilized. Already this month, the International Journal of Drug Policy published articles by scientists from around the world condemning the federal government for interfering politically with the site's research, Boyd held his Ottawa press conference, advocates held a rally in a Downtown Eastside park featuring 1,000 white crosses to symbolize the people who didn't die from drug overdoses while injecting at InSite, Vancouver street nurses picketed the office of the Vancouver Police Union, whose president is a leading critic of the site, BC Nurses Association president Debra MacPherson held a press conference to tout the health benefits of InSite, and all three BC civic parties have signaled their joint support of the program.

"We're fully behind the effort to keep InSite open," said David Hurford, director of communications for Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan. "It is part of the solution, not part of the problem, and it is a bottom-up solution from the grassroots. The federal government has said it supports grassroots decision-making, so why should bureaucrats from 3,000 miles away be making decisions for us here?" he asked.

The mayor's office is "working with local stakeholders to help communicate the benefits of InSite," said Hurford. "We wrote to the health minister last week asking him to keep the site open, and at a minimum, to extend the permits until all pending legal issues are heard."

Hurford is referring to a lawsuit pending in the BC courts that challenges Health Canada's jurisdiction over InSite. That suit argues that since under Canadian law, health care is the domain of the provinces, the federal government should not have control over InSite. But that lawsuit will not be settled by the end of next month.

Opposition politicians have also joined the fight. "This government chooses to view harm reduction as nothing more than dirty words, at the expense of protecting the safety and health of Canadians," said Liberal Party public health spokesperson Dr. Carolyn Bennett.

"The results from the InSite project show measurable evidence that it saves lives," said Liberal MP Dr. Hedy Fry, who played a key role in bringing the agreement that allowed InSite to open. "This has won it widespread support not only from experts in Canada but from the international scientific community, from the Vancouver police and from residents of the Downtown Eastside," said Dr. Fry. "It is simply irresponsible to ignore scientifically-based proof of the efficacy of harm reduction programs like this, and base public policy on ideology alone because real people suffer the consequences."

"The Conservative government must stop its unconscionable interference in scientific research on Vancouver's safe injection site," added New Democratic Party MP Libby Davies, who represents the Downtown Eastside. "Medical researchers from the University of British Columbia have revealed that Harper and his team have been suppressing evidence and denying funding to scientists who are looking objectively at the merits of Insite," she said.

"More than 20 medical and academic studies have been published showing the health and social benefits of InSite. We now have both scientific fact and evidence from users in our community that this facility is helping, not hurting the people of our city. The research record shows that Insite saves lives and increases public safety," Davies continued. "Harper doesn't understand that you can't just hide the facts whenever they don't suit your political agenda. We need a change in direction. It's time for this government to make decisions based on evidence instead of ideology -- InSite needs to be kept open."

"What we want is a 3 ½ year renewal of the exemption from the Controlled Substances Act," said Nathan Allen of InSite for Community Safety. "The fact that the Harper government has not granted this renewal shows they are very reluctant to support the community."

While the Harper government has previously said it needed more research to evaluate InSite's efficacy, that dog won't hunt anymore, said Allen. "They've already spent more than $1.5 million studying InSite, they've produced two dozen academic papers, and they've concluded that it has all kinds of positive impacts. We're wondering what questions the government has left to ask," he scoffed. "InSite has undergone the most thorough and well-funded scrutiny of any health clinic in the country."

In the event the government refuses to grant another exemption, Allen said he hoped it would respect provincial authority and local autonomy. "This has been a regional response to a local crisis here in Vancouver. We need to let the people here on the ground do what they need to do. If not, people will die," he predicted bluntly.

The clock is ticking for InSite, but the pressure is mounting on the Harper government. The next few weeks will determine if that pressure is sufficient to overcome the government's ideological opposition to the safe injection site.

1 comment:

Sam said...

It seems fairly obvious to me that those who seek to persist in treating addiction as a criminal activity are (either knowingly or unknowingly) contributing to organized crime. I wish all the 'moral conservatives' out there would come to this same quite undeniable fact so that their elected representatives can do the right thing. Drug war = subsidization of organized crime.