The Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling to permit InSite, a supervised narcotics injection facility, to remain open without prosecution for federal drug law violations, is a progressive step towards helping many of Vancouver’s drug users. The conservative argument—that safe injection sites enable and condone drug use while harsher law enforcement for dealers and users would staunch the problem—is narrow-minded and short-sighted.
The Canadian Drugs and Substances Act holds that federal drug laws may be suspended when enforcement would be “arbitrary” or “grossly disproportionate,” a clause typically reserved for medical and scientific purposes. In the case of InSite, enforcing federal drug laws would indeed be grossly disproportionate: the number of overdose deaths averted per year, based on statistical models, is difficult to estimate but ranges from one to 12. Not one fatality has been reported amongst the 1.8 million users who have passed through the facility, and in 2010 alone, 458 individuals were admitted to Onsite, the 12-bed detox and rehabilitation centre on the clinic’s second floor.Studies published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS have shown that InSite does not increase the number of relapses among former drug users.
In 2008, then-health minister Tony Clement chose not to extend the centre’s exemption from federal drug laws, calling InSite an “abomination.” Groups of InSite supporters took the federal government to the BC Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of InSite under Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—the right to life, liberty, and security of the person. Prohibiting drug possession within the safe injection site would prevent users from accessing health care: InSite offers a sterile environment to prevent the spread of drug-related diseases and also monitors patients in case of overdose. The notion that sterile drug injection facilities can be definitional to health care is a progressive and necessary measure for many Canadians.
Through appeals, InSite came in front of the Canadian Supreme Court. Overwhelmed by evidence showing that InSite saves lives and prevents the spread of diseases, the nine judges unanimously ruled that InSite upholds the CDSA’s mandate to maintain the health and well-being of Canadians, and that health minister Leona Agglukaq’s failure to grant the exemption was unconstitutional. The benefits the site provides to the community, according the Supreme Court, far outweigh any potential benefits of enforcing drug laws and closing it.
Harm reduction techniques are a necessary, but not sufficient, component of any strategy to address Vancouver’s drug problem. The Conservative government’s attempts to justify closing down InSite by claiming that InSite encourages drug use misrepresents the site: a centre which offers information on rehab treatments and referrals to other social services is not one that condones drug use. Furthermore, the rate of drug overdoses in the area has substantially decreased compared to the rest of Vancouver. In the face of overwhelming evidence that needle exchanges and a room for supervised injections save lives, shutting down InSite would be tantamount to preventing citizens from accessing basic health care.
InSite is more than just a sterile facility: one long-term drug user interviewed by the Toronto Star described it as the one place drug users can go and “feel human.” At the heart of InSite is compassion for a community that almost never receives any. InSite should set a precedent for drug policy and healthcare nationwide.