It was great news Friday when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of Vancouver’s Insite drug injection clinic. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that not allowing the clinic to operate under the umbrella of a federal exemption is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“The infringement at stake (of not granting an exemption) is serious,” wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in the ruling. “It threatens the health, indeed the lives, of the claimants and others like them. The grave consequences that might result from a lapse in the current constitutional exemption for Insite cannot be ignored.”
The feds would dearly like to ignore it. But the Supreme Court has ordered the federal minister of health to grant an immediate exemption to Insite under clause S.56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), thus allowing Insite to operate.
So it should.
“Insite saves lives,” said McLachlin. “Its benefits have been proven. There has been no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada during its eight years of operation.”
Insite opened in September 2003 originally had a three-year exemption from Section 56 of the CDSA for scientific and research purposes. Exemptions were extended until the feds tried to block the process leading to the Supreme Court finale.
Insite is in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, home for more than one third of the estimated 12,000 injection drug users living in the city.
The facility’s 12 injection booths provide a safe place for drug users to inject pre-obtained drugs using clean syringes and equipment under the supervision of nurses and health care staff.
Addiction counsellors, doctors, and health care staff provide ongoing support for clients with addiction, mental health or HIV/AIDS issues. It’s a cross road where clients can try to explore a new life a chance.
The stats back it up. Since first opening, Insite has had more than 1.8 million visits. Last year alone there were 312,214 visits by 12,236 individuals. Daily visits averaged some 855 individuals with an average of 587 daily injections. Twenty-six per cent were women; 17 per cent were Aboriginal and the principal substances were heroin (36 per cent), cocaine (32 per cent) and morphine (12 per cent). Last year saw 458 admissions from Insite into Onsite, the adjoining detox treatment facility which recorded a program completion rate of 43 per cent.
More than 30 research studies into aspects of addiction and treatments have been published in peer-reviewed journals around the world, all concluding that Insite saves lives and is a health benefit. The research is clear that addiction is, first and foremost, a health issue before any legal issue surfaces. The latest article in the prestigious Lancet showed that drug overdoses decreased 35 per cent within 500 metres of Insite compared to 9 per cent elsewhere in Vancouver.
“This represents a victory for science,” said Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC Centre for Excellence for HIV/AIDS. “Prior attempts from the federal government to stop the activities of Insite have been ruled unconstitutional. We are thankful for the unwavering support from the provincial government that has allowed us to set an example for how to deal with addiction which is a medical condition.”
The decision by the Supreme Court is a watershed moment for drug addiction policy. The conservative government has always been against Insite. But there needs to be a cultural shift in Ottawa to understand that drug addiction needs health care, not law enforcement.
Instead of wasting tax dollars on more prisons, lawyers, and jail terms, the money should be used for health care initiatives and a coming together of harm reduction and prevention approaches.