Harper vs. Insite

May 14, 2011

Harper vs. Insite

Representatives and advocates of Vancouver’s safe drug-injection site were in Ottawa  to resist the Harper government’s attempt to shut down the clinic.

Although two B.C. courts have ruled that Insite is a healthcare facility under provincial jurisdiction, the Conservatives have appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada where the case was heard on May 12th.

Insite first opened in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2003 with a special exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) via Health Canada. Users are provided with needles to legally inject illicit drugs in clean facilities under supervision with access to treatment, counselling, and medical care.

“We as a government will not use taxpayers’ money to fund drug use.”

This was perhaps Stephen Harper’s first shot across Insite’s bow as he campaigned in B.C. in December 2005, before coming into power in 2006.

Although the Conservative government temporarily extended the clinic’s exemption until 2008, which permits it to operate without its staff and clients being prosecuted for trafficking or possession of controlled substances, they have continued to push for the facility’s closure.

Both the B.C. provincial Supreme Court and Court of Appeals ruled in favour of the safe-injection site, thus setting the context for the Supreme Court of Canada case in Ottawa.

Mark Townsend, Executive Director of the PHS Community Services Society who co-manages Insite with the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, was among many making the trip from Vancouver to Ottawa. He spoke to the press outside the court.

“Health Canada off the record will tell you they support it and all they’ll ever say is that it’s coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office and it’s an unfortunate thing that this came across the Prime Minister’s desk when he was kind of head-strung and thought he knew about everything at the beginning of his reign.”

“The evidence is overwhelming,” he continued, “You have 40 peer-reviewed studies funded by the federal government themselves that says it saves lives, it saves money, its a useful part of a comprehensive strategy.”

Inside the court, government lawyers framed the argument around constitutional jurisdiction. Robert Frater argued that illicit drugs fall under federal jurisdiction and thus trump provincial matters. His opponents argued that health issues, primarily a provincial responsibility, were more important. Insite serves to mitigate death from overdose and helps prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases.

Their arguments are backed by numerous peer-reviewed studies, including renowned medical journals such as the Lancet which recently published its findings that overdose deaths had decreased by 35 percent in the Downtown Eastside.

Despite the research findings and support for Insite, the ideologically-driven Conservative government continues to levy assault after assault on the clinic in its north-of-the-border style war on drugs and crime, culminating in this landmark court case.

In 2010, Insite saw over 300,000 visits by over 12,000 different individuals with a daily average of 587 injections. There were also 221 overdose interventions with no fatalities, 3,383 clinical treatment interventions, and over 5,000 referrals to other health and social services, the vast majority for addiction and detox treatment. The clinic is also home to Onsite, which contains 30 detox beds which saw 458 admissions in 2010.

Although a decision is not expected for a few months, Justice Marshall Rothstein suggested the case was precedent-setting and others agree.

Members from DUAL (Drug Users Advocacy League) in Ottawa were at the court in support of Insite. They reiterated the need for a similar clinic in the city that centralizes health services for users, such as testing and treatment, under one roof.

Sean Leblanc, an organizer with DUAL, expressed the importance of the proceedings for people in Ottawa: “We’re fighting an uphill battle in a conservative climate, but the outcome here will provide a good case to get drugs off the street and help to those who use them.”