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

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #536)
Politics & Advocacy

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.

InSite (courtesy Vancouver Coastal Health)
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.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Giordano (not verified)

The use of the phrase ‘encourage and facilitate drug use’ is routinely applied by drug warriors to criticize and reject alternative programs that are easily shown to discourage or regulate drug use.

Meanwhile, programs that are shown not to work, such as DARE, Partnership for a Drug-free America, CASA, ONDCP, DEA, and so many others, are lauded and funded year after year.

Hidden in the words ‘encourage’ and ‘facilitate’ is a double-think in Harper’s rationale that defies the reality-based world of action and reaction—one that apparently seeks to perpetuate the drug war.

The existence of the drug war is not just about the civil service salaries, and it’s not just about the drugs, nor even the big money.  It’s also about the utility of the drug war’s political application to so many other things.  Among these applications:

  • The drug war is an effective policy tool for maintaining a hierarchal or divided-class social structure, one that contains racism or poverty, for example.
  • It is a political weapon that can be used against political opponents. 
  • It’s an excuse for a country to introduce itself into another country’s political affairs for intelligence access to that country.
  • It’s a platform for black-op, military, and para-military operations into international hot zones. 
  • It can be used to fabricate the ‘enemy within’ phenomenon used by dictators to create a nationwide state of fear that only they, the Deciders, can save us from. 
  • It ostracizes or removes dangerously rational people from society, or from the public debate; the type of people who are most likely to threaten a corrupt or totalitarian regime.
  • It’s a back door that allows totalitarian policies to enter into a nation’s jurisprudence, policies that circumvent the national or state constitution and become part of state, national and international policy and law. 
  • It’s a distraction or red herring from the real issues that would otherwise allow us to better focus our needed attention on certain dysfunctional leaders and governments. 
  • It can murder people who are morally or politically disfavored by those in power.
  • It can collect, in one place, a unified bureaaucracy comprised of authoritarian-followers who, at a government’s mere command, are more than willing to persecute anyone for anything.

With so many political uses, it’s no wonder people who put the ‘con’ in ‘conservative’ love the drug war so much.  Many more of these tangled webs of drug war deceit and intrigue probably exist.  Time will reveal their presence.  The drug war’s usefulness is limited only by the imagination of those who would employ it to further their own nefarious agenda.


Sat, 05/17/2008 - 4:24am Permalink
aahpat (not verified)

In reply to by Giordano (not verified)

Well put Al.

I might contribute that the drug war institutions have served, since Nixon and the congressional Dixie-crats of the day kicked this thing off in 1971, to restore Jim Crow in America effectively neutralizing and undermining the electoral empowerment effects of the Voting Rights Act and the 26st Amendment.

The war on drugs manipulates America's democratic apportionment system with forced population shifts from pluralistic urban centers to conservative rural prisons where they are counted for electoral purposes but have no vote. This facilitates Gerrymandering and gives "safe districts" their margin to stay safe for whichever party controls it.

This subversion have had direct impacts on presidential elections and indirect "law and order" and "tough on crime" rhetorical influence on most all American elections since its inception. Serving well to shove all politicians to the right in any and all elections.

In a column in the Nation last year Ira Glasser, former head of the ACLU and now president of the Drug Policy Alliance put all of this better than I can.

"The kicker for all this is that all these black citizens who were disproportionately targeted for arrest and incarceration and then barred from voting are nonetheless counted as citizens for the purpose of determining how many Congressional seats and how many electoral votes states have. During slavery, three-fifths of the number of slaves were similarly counted by the slave states, even though slaves were not in any way members of the civil polity. This is worse. In the states of the Deep South, 30 percent of all black men are barred from voting because of felony convictions, but all of them are counted to determine Congressional representation and Electoral College votes. If one wants to wonder why the South is so solidly white, Republican and arch-conservative, one need look no further.

The fact is, just as Jim Crow laws were a successor system to slavery, so drug prohibition has been a successor to Jim Crow laws in targeting blacks, removing them from civil society and then denying them the right to vote while using their bodies to enhance white political power. Drug prohibition is now the last significant instance of legalized racial discrimination in America.

That many liberals have been at best timid in opposing the drug war and at worst accomplices to its continued escalation is, in light of the racial politics of drug prohibition, a special outrage. It is also politically self-destructive, serving to keep in power white conservatives opposed to everything liberals stand for. Liberals especially, therefore, need to consider attacking the premises upon which this edifice of racial subjugation is based. If they do not, who will?"

The United States of America has not had a valid and democratic national election since the start of the war on drugs.

Sat, 05/17/2008 - 8:44am Permalink
Giordano (not verified)

In reply to by aahpat (not verified)

Much thanks for your excellent comments, but I'm not Al Giordano of Narco News Bulletin fame.  Giordano is just my blogging pen-name.


Sat, 05/17/2008 - 12:32pm Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

In reply to by Giordano (not verified)

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.Canada Just remove the word "can" and this is a blue print for what's been going on for the past 100 years.Harper thinks Bush talks to god(in spite of the evidence to the contrary)and follows his every move.The papers here(Vancouver)are full of articles about all manner of people sending pleas to Mr.Harper in favor of the safe injection site.I wrote the media two years ago and expressed my view that Harper &co. were incapable of making a sound decision and were too stuck in their dogmatic mindset to approve InSite.The pressure is impressive and it will take an absolute denial of the science and the will of the people to deny them their exemption.Harper is capable of such ignorance.

Fri, 05/23/2008 - 2:51am Permalink
aahpat (not verified)

Harper: "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."

the most fundamental purpose of any government is public safety. The man scoffs at reducing harms which is to improve public safety.

I would bet that Mr. Harper is in contempt of his oath of office.

Isn't this an impeachable offense in Canada?

Sat, 05/17/2008 - 8:21am Permalink
aahpat (not verified)

Police sometimes have need to search the pockets of addicts or come into contact with the blood of people with a high potential for having a disease transmitted by dirty needles. Distributing clean needles reduces the threat, and "harm" of police being exposed to deadly diseases.

If the Prime Minister doesn't care about the addicts does he at least care about the police?

Sat, 05/17/2008 - 8:51am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Borden’s Damage Control Is Laughable

In Borden’s most recent post vis-à-vis the Shaffergate debacle (for which his credibility as a free speech advocate went down the toilet for all time) he cynically attempts to link me to the semi-literate grifters who made the “Crack Heads Gone Wild” videos, knowing full well I have nothing to do with that outfit. His second ignoble implication, that my email exchange with the EFF was possibly fabricated or merely a sort of automated response they send out to schlemiels not in the know would be risible if it did not betray a cynical and grasping politicking on his part to discredit someone with cogent gripes, and, of course, Borden’s actions as censor of free expression during the entire sordid episode of Shaffergate have no legitimate justification and he knows it (not to mention the four hundred-plus people world-wide on the discussion thread who read all the censored posts, and also know it---Shaffergate turned into a real blunder for DRCNet!) .
Also, apologies to Al Giordano of whose name some nitwit on this forum decided to steal and post comments to under, without telling anyone until now, creating much confusion for no good reason.

Sun, 06/01/2008 - 4:54am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I forgot to mention how curious it is that Amanda Shaffer was disappeared from DRCNet. What were the circumstances? Very strange indeed.

Sun, 06/01/2008 - 4:59am Permalink

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