Canadians Protest Closure of Supervised Drug Injection Center


Community activists in Vancouver's downtown have threatened "civil disobedience" to protest the impending closure of a controversial supervised injection site for drug users.   First opened in 2003, Insite is North America's first legal supervised injection site based on a harm reduction model for minimizing the health risks associated with unsafe drug use.  Funded by British Columbia's Ministry of Health Services and Health Canada, Insite has functioned under a special exemption to the Federal Controlled Drug and Substances Act.   Although the exemption has been renewed several times since 2006, the Federal governmen has threatened to close the centre and a constitutional challenge is currently underway.

Harm reduction refers to public policies designed to decriminalize recreational drug use and provide substance abusers with safe avenues for minimizing diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.  Harm avoidance strategies, including the use of needle exchange programs and safe injection sites, represent a controversial alternative to more conventional approaches such as criminal convictions for drug possession and forced abstinence.  Safe injection site programs have been used successfully in a number of European countries since 1986. 

The Insite program is designed to provide drug users with a safe, health-focused site for injected drug use (primarily heroin, cocaine, and morphine).    The downtown Vancouver location was selected given the acute injected-drug epidemic occuring in that area.  On-site medical staff provide drug users with substance abuse counseling, medical advice, and first aid in the event of overdoses or injuries.  In 2009 alone, the site recorded 276,178 visits by 5,447 unique users.    The program enjoys overwhelming support in the Vancouver area.

When the Insite program first opened in 2003, it was  granted a three-year exemption from federal drug legislation given its experimental nature.  Although the program was initially intended to be closed in 2006, the Conservative minority government granted several extensions but has refused to extend them further.   Insite has faced continued opposition from Canada's Conservative minority government despite research showing that the site has led to a 35% drop in overdose death in the area served (as opposed to a 9% increase in other parts of Vancouver).   Despite the expenses associated with running Insite, cost-benefit analyses have consistently shown the benefits of continuing the program.   Although the Federal government has commissioned research studies that refute the harm avoidance model, critics have condemned the research as being flawed.

While the Supreme Court of British Columbia has ruled that Insite should be continued, the Federal government has been fighting the decision and has announced plans to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.  Protests and demonstrations over the threatened closure of Insite have become a common sight on the streets of Vancouver in recent months.   Given the Conservative government's stated intentions (and the majority they received in the recent federal election), the protests are likely to continue.

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