As the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper prepares to launch its already widely attacked new national anti-drug strategy (look for a Chronicle feature article next week), it has moved to deflect opposition somewhat by announcing this week it has granted another six-month extension to Insite, the Vancouver safe injection site for hard drug users. But granting Insite only a limited extension has drawn flak from harm reductionists and other site supporters who say it has been proven to reduce injection drug use, needle sharing and overdoses without increasing criminality or social disorder and deserves better than to be left on tenterhooks awaiting semi-annual renewals of its exemption from Canadian drug laws.
On Tuesday, Health Minister Tony Clement announced in a terse statement that he "has advised the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority which operates Insite, a supervised injection site, that their exemption under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act has been extended until June 30, 2008. This extension will allow research on how supervised injection sites affect prevention, treatment and crime to be continued for another six months."
The evidence of Insite's efficacy is already in, protested the Canadian AIDS Society in response to the limited renewal. The limited renewal is an "irresponsible decision on a public health program that is proven to work," the group said.
"This is the second time that the federal government has stalled on this decision and said that more research is needed. But the fact is, Minister Clement is asking questions that have already been answered and calling for research that's already been done," said Richard Elliott, executive director of the organization. "The evidence is unequivocal: Insite is saving lives and lowering the risk of HIV infection in one of the most marginalized communities in Canada, and increasing the chances of referring people who use drugs to addiction treatment services."
Uncertainty over Insite's continued existence is hard on staff, clients, and medical personnel alike, Insite worker Mark Townsend told the Toronto Globe & Mail Wednesday. "It's like constantly debating the same tiny speck of dust," Townsend said. "It's stressful on the ground for the human beings, the doctors and nurses involved with it. It's stressful for the people who work in the bureaucracy and care about people on the ground and are trying to put together programs that help people. The clients do get stressed about it as well. It's like you're constantly about to be fired from your job."