Nicholas Read, Vancouver Sun
Published: Friday, August 11, 2006
VANCOUVER -- The physician in charge of overseeing scientific evaluation of North America's first and only safe injection site says he may be forced to start laying off staff unless the federal government makes a decision soon about the site's future.
Dr. Julio Montaner, head of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said Thursday if the site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside closes, he will do his best to reassign the five researchers involved in its scientific assessment, but he can't make any guarantees.
"People who have been valuable in the research field, we will do whatever we can to keep them in the research field to the best of our ability," said Montaner.
"But I don't know that we can. This [failure by the government to make a decision] is creating a huge uncertainty among our own staff because we can't provide them with job security.
"I have people, staff, contracts to worry about. There needs to be some process here."
The site, known as Insite, will close Sept. 12 unless the federal government grants it a continued exemption under Canada's narcotics law. Without that exemption, it will no longer be permitted to provide a safe location for users to inject drugs.
Erik Waddell, press secretary to Health Minister Tony Clement, said the minister understands Montaner's concerns, "and that when a decision is made, we will let him know."
However, Waddell couldn't say when that decision will be made -- or if it would be made before the Sept. 12 deadline.
"I can't give you a timeline," he said Thursday. "But the minister is actively engaged in this file."
He also said, despite rumours of the contrary, the decision will be the health minister's alone.
On Thursday, representatives of the Insite for Community Safety Campaign -- a coalition of groups and individuals working to save the site -- met with a policy adviser from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office in Ottawa.
They said the adviser told them the decision to close or retain the site would be made by Clement in conjunction with Justice Minister Vic Toews and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day.
Waddell said that wasn't true.
"The public safety and justice ministers have a concern where drugs are involved, but the ministers will not be involved [in the decision]. It's solely the health minister," he said.
Asked if the decision would be Harper's as well, Waddell said: "The prime minister is interested in all decisions."
Harper told Vancouver reporters in June that he was waiting for assessments from the RCMP and other agencies before making a decision on the site, but he hasn't made a comment about it since.
Montaner also expressed frustration at Harper's decision to consult those agencies when, he said, the prime minister has already been presented with a full complement of peer-reviewed scientific papers attesting to the site's success and efficacy.
"The [peer review] process is extremely harsh and painful, but at the end of the day it gives you the ability to say this has gone to the highest level of peer review," Montaner said. "I don't know if the government gets that."
He added that reports of the kind the government is seeking "don't have any validity beyond the opinion of the individual writing them. It's like saying you're a good guy because your mother says so."
Scientific assessments of the site have shown that it has dramatically reduced the number of overdose deaths in the Downtown Eastside, and that users who use the site are more likely to seek treatment and rehabilitation than those who don't.
Dr. Thomas Kerr, a research associate with the Centre for Excellence and the co-principal investigator of scientific evaluations of Insite, will present scientific findings around the site next Tuesday at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto.
I was going to mention how much sites like these would help in the US, especially in heavily populated areas with high levels of heroin use such as NY, LA, and Seattle, but theres not much of a point.
The government would rather let people die and become statistics to support the drug war than help them out....