Monday, May 16, 2011
Insite can't be allowed to close
Writing a column means finding some quiet time to let yourself think.
Which is how a morning walk this week in brilliant sunshine turned into a long and dark reflection on my readiness for civil disobedience if Ottawa tries to shut down Vancouver’s supervised injection site.
A few of my activist acquaintances have pointed out that I’m not much for actually showing up at a protest, even when it’s an issue I feel strongly about. I suspect they take that as an indicator that I’m a bit of an armchair quarterback (even though the truth is that I just think writing is the more effective protest tool for me).
Still, ever since I heard a retired medical health officer vow years ago at a Vancouver harm-reduction forum to chain himself to the door of Insite if that’s what it took to prevent its closure, I knew I felt the same way. Count me in for a blockade if it comes to that.
I have great faith in our court system to get past the unthinking politics of the moment. So my first hope is that the Supreme Court of Canada - which heard arguments on this issue Thursday - makes mincemeat of the federal government’s attempts to close down the quiet little clinic in the Downtown Eastside.
But if worse comes to worse, this is an issue that’s well worth going to battle for. Denying life-saving health services to people solely because you don’t like their illness is morality-based health care. No democratic, civilized country should be setting foot on that slippery slope.
Back in its early days, Insite was a bold experiment for Canada. Supervised injection sites were old news elsewhere in the world by the time Insite opened in 2003, but still an untested and controversial concept for Canadians to get their heads around. People understandably had many concerns at the time about what it would mean to open such a site.
But that was then. Now, we know absolutely that Insite saves lives. We know that it doesn’t increase drug use or public disorder, and that it helps people connect to services that can get them out of their addiction entirely. More than 800 people now access Insite in a typical day.
The federal government of a decade ago was extremely wary about allowing an exemption to the Criminal Code so that people addicted to illicit drugs could use them under the watchful eye of nurses at the clinic. Insite has endured intense scrutiny for eight years as a condition of being allowed to open.
The facility has passed every test.
Some 30 peer-reviewed scientific studies have examined the impact of Insite. They all found that the clinic prevents overdose deaths, reduces the transmission of potentially fatal diseases, and helps people connect to treatment for their addiction.
Other researchers were tasked with gauging the harms Insite might be inadvertently causing. They didn’t find any.
So what’s the problem? There isn’t one. The current federal government simply believes - against all scientific evidence - that harm-reduction strategies encourage people to use drugs.
Never mind that nothing about being addicted is easy, and no amount of supervised injection sites will ever change that. Never mind that everybody wins if we get our heads out of the sand and actually provide services for a terrible, debilitating illness.
Crime drops. Health-care costs fall. Productivity rises. Police are free to return to the important work of catching criminals rather than wasting time busting people with addictions. Why would any government fight against such positive developments?
Court rulings tend to be based on narrow legal arguments, so it’s hard to predict whether the Supreme Court will come down on the side of all that’s right in this particular case. The federal government is arguing there will be “chaos” if Insite is allowed to remain open and provinces start making their own decisions around access to illicit drugs.
That sounds like one of those sweeping statements a government trots out to dress up a specious argument. The time for chaos is if Ottawa tries to close the facility.