Rebuffing the Conservative government of Prime Minister, the Canadian Supreme Court Friday ruled unanimously that Vancouver's safe injection site for heroin addicts can stay open. Known as Insite, the Downtown Eastside facility is the only safe injection site in North America.
At Insite, drug users are provided clean needles and sterilized water with which to mix their drug. Insite does not provide the drugs; users must bring their own. The users inject under medical supervision at one of 12 injecting alcoves.
Insite operates under the auspices of the British Columbia Ministry of Health and the local public health authority, Vancouver Coastal Health. Numerous research reports on Insite have found that it has reduced fatal drug overdoses, reduced HIV and Hepatitis C transmission rates, reduced crime rates in the neighborhood, and increased the number of drug users entering treatment.
It has operated since 2003 under an exemption to Canada's drug laws, but since coming to power, the Harper government has attempted to shut it down, claiming it "enables" drug users. Friday's decision by the Canadian Supreme Court is the final chapter in that effort.
The Harper government argued that the federal drug law took precedence over British Columbia's public health policies. British Columbia and other Insite supporters argued that because Insite is providing a form of health care, its operation is a provincial matter. The federal government's concerns did not outweigh the benefits of Insite, the court said.
"The grave consequences that might result from a lapse in the current constitutional exemption for Insite cannot be ignored," the court said. "Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada."
Hundreds of Insite supporters gathered at the facility at dawn and broke out in cheers after the decision was announced. As the news spread, harm reduction, public health, and drug reform groups in Canada and around the world lined up to applaud it.
"We are absolutely delighted that we finally have a clear decision on the legal framework for Insite," said Dr. Patricia Daly, Vancouver Coastal Health Chief Medical Health Officer. "Since 2003, Insite has made a positive impact on thousands of clients, saved lives by preventing overdoses, and provided vital health services to a vulnerable population. Today's ruling allows us to continue the outstanding work Insite, its doctors, nurses, staff and partners provide."
"This represents a victory for science," said Dr. Julio Montaner, Director of the BC Center 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 continued and unwavering support from the provincial government that has allowed us to set an example in Canada and the world for how to deal with addiction which is, indeed, a medical condition."
"We applaud today's landmark decision by the Canadian Supreme Court to uphold the human rights of all Canadians by allowing Insite to remain open," said the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, CACTUS Montreal, and Harm Reduction International in a joint statement. "We are heartened the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized that criminal laws on drugs must give way to good public health practices and harm reduction."
"This is a victory for science, compassion and public health -- and, given the fiscal benefits of such programs, the Canadian taxpayer. The Supreme Court of Canada recognized that Insite saves lives, and that that should be a guiding principle in deciding drug policy," said Laura Thomas, California deputy director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Congratulations to the advocates, drug users, researchers, nurses, and elected officials who have campaigned for Vancouver's supervised injection facility for so long. This is a complete validation of their work."
The Supreme Court of Canada's Insite ruling applies only to Insite. Other Canadian localities seeking to establish safe injection sites must win permission from the federal government. Canadian activists urged them to do so.
"In light of today's Supreme Court decision, jurisdictions Canada-wide should act fearlessly on evidence and make harm reduction services modeled on Insite available to those in need in their locales," said the Canadian groups. "The Minister of Health must respect the court's decision and grant similar exemptions to other sites so that people across Canada will be able to access the public health services they desperately need."
There are 67 safe injection sites operating today, with one in Australia, Insite in Vancouver, and the rest in Europe. There are no safe injection sites operating in the United States, although a move is afoot in San Francisco to get one underway there. The Drug Policy Alliance's Thomas said it is time to start pushing harder.
"For communities in the US which have been hard hit by drug use, it is time to look at the evidence from Canada and start opening supervised injection facilities here," she said. "We look forward to implementing the same desire to save lives in the US."