Occasionally we get good news out of Ottawa, and on Sept. 30, the country’s Supreme Court delivered a rare unanimous ruling that is good news indeed.
Putting an end to several years of squandered time, effort and taxpayer dollars, all wasted on a vindictive Tory attempt to shut down Insite, Vancouver’s pioneering and wildly successful experiment with harm reduction for injection drug users, the justices ordered the Minister of Health to provide the supervised injection centre in the Downtown Eastside with the legal exemption that will allow it to continue its life saving work.
It’s about time the Tory nonsense around Insite was put to rest. Now the adults in the room can get back to the business of rational science, harm reduction and sane social policy, unless, as is far too plausible, the mouth breathers in the federal cabinet decide to find some other way to block progress and throw more red meat to their “law and order” loving base, who have no worries about their favourite addictions and crimes being affected.
Insite is currently the only supervised injection centre in North America, and one of 65 operating around the world. It has safely supervised over a million injections since its opening in 2003, and in 2009 nearly 500 potentially lethal overdoses on site were dealt with by the centre’s trained health professionals, suggesting at least a preliminary number for how many lives have been saved by Insite.
The World Health Organization calls such centres, where addicted IV drug users are provided with clean needles and a sterile environment in which to take their drugs, “a priority intervention in slowing HIV transmission via needles.” Dr. Julio Montaner, a St. Paul’s Hospital based HIV/AIDS researcher and president of the International Aids Society, told Forbes magazine that the Supreme Court ruling represents “a victory of science over ideology.”
He’s right, and let’s be clear about what the ideology is that has been repudiated in this case, because the attack on Insite is only one of many ways this poisonous political theology is being manifested in Canada.
Perhaps we can use the moment of clarity provided by the Supreme Court decision to take a critical look at some of its other manifestations. What has been rejected is a mean spirited focus on “law and order” that’s differentially tough on crime—bringing in draconian penalties for the crimes committed by the poor and the marginalized and saving its compassion for the crimes of the rich and well connected. With the Harper majority government in power, we are likely to see this merciless approach applied to many areas of public policy and we will all have to fight hard to keep the government from establishing a regime of omnibus crime bills, mandatory sentences and multiplying prisons. In the meantime, drug prohibition, so beloved by the law and order crowd, will continue to produce its predictable results: powerful drug mafias, corrupted police departments, crowded prisons and degraded public services.
Vancouverites have reason to be proud of our city’s role in creating Insite, and to be relieved that the attempt to destroy it has been thwarted. Now we need to actively support the call, issued promptly by COPE Coun. Ellen Woodsworth after the Supreme Court decision, for increased provincial funding to extend Insite hours and to open other similar centres across the city.
In a Sept. 30 release, COPE called for “… more sites in the city that provide access to treatment, mental health assistance, and safe injection for those in our communities struggling with addiction. COPE is asking the provincial government step up the funding of Insite so that there can be more staff and longer hours for this health service.”
I urge my readers to echo this call by emailing their MLAs and the premier this week, calling on them to comply with this urgent request.