Intravenous drug use and conservative values
Insite, Vancouver’s supervised drug injection site, has a date with the Supreme Court of Canada.
In January, the B.C. Court of Appeal dismissed the federal government’s latest attempt to close the clinic, arguing that Insite’s operations fall under provincial rather than federal jurisdiction.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson responded last week by announcing that Ottawa would appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Many of Insite’s supporters regard the federal government’s appeal as strictly ideological, in keeping with the party’s conservative principles of being “tough on crime” and “tough on drugs.”
But when we examine the party’s founding principles, Insite’s operation would appear to be ideologically conservative. So much so that the Conservative government should be supporting it rather than trying to shut it down.
Take the principle of balancing fiscal accountability, progressive social policy and individual rights and responsibilities.
Studies have found that Insite saves money. In a cost-benefit analysis over a 10-year period, it was found that a net $18 million could be saved.
Similarly, more than $6 million could be saved each year just by averting HIV-related medical costs.
Together, these savings are more than enough to offset Insite’s $3 million per year operating costs. Support for Insite, therefore, is the only fiscally responsible position for Conservatives.
Accountability is another conservative principle, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been quoted as saying, “we as a government will not fund drug use.”
Well, Prime Minister, please visit Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on “Welfare Wednesday.” Residents are rich with drugs and the waiting list to get into Insite can reach an hour. Where did their money come from? Your government’s tax money, that’s where, in the form of welfare payments. Acknowledge that your government is funding drug use; that is accountability.
The Conservatives also claim to believe in the equality of all Canadians, but there is inequality in care among Canadians suffering from addiction.
Consider alcoholism. When individuals suffer from this addiction, it is regarded as a medical condition, even to the extent that it “runs in the family.” The “addicts” are viewed as patients, referred to treatment centres and given counselling — all in the name of “health care.”
For individuals who drink too much, we as a society have also implemented a number of harm-reduction programs, such as designated drivers and increased public transit hours. One significant harm-reduction strategy is the training of bar staff to serve alcohol responsibly. By monitoring their patrons’ consumption and behaviour, bar staff are able to determine when someone should be cut off.
These practices are in place to reduce harms, both to the individual and to others (e.g. driving while impaired). To further reduce harms, bar staff also offer advice or provide safe equipment. They suggest that patrons stagger their drinks over time, or provide shatterproof glasses to prevent injury.
Yet this also is what nurses do at Insite. They offer advice on safe injection practices and provide equipment to prevent the harms of infection and overdose. If all addictions are medical conditions, should we not be treating them the same? Why are individuals suffering from illicit drug addiction exempt from harm-reduction strategies?
The Conservatives emphasize that individuals have a responsibility to provide for themselves, their families and their dependants, while also recognizing that government must respond to those who require assistance and compassion.
Addiction is an illness. As with any other illness, it is affected by uncontrollable factors and personal predispositions. It can be treated with a combination of therapies and treatments. Canadians suffering from addiction, therefore, deserve the same government assistance and compassion as any other health condition.
The federal government’s opposition to Insite is not truly “conservative,” but reactionary.
The war on drugs has proven to be both futile and fiscally wasteful. In 2010, the U.S. government spent more than $15 billion on it. Yet arrests for drug law violations this year are expected to exceed the 1,663,582 arrests of 2009.
Clinging to ineffectual ideas only perpetuates conditions that sustain the status quo for marginalized people.
The Conservative party must acknowledge this. It also should be more open to practices that sustain the individual rights highlighted in the party’s founding principles. The concept of harm reduction as practised at Insite does just that.
The Supreme Court of British Columbia has already concluded that access to Insite’s health services is a Charter right to the “security of the person.”
As a socially progressive service that preserves the rights of Canadians, Insite is a fine expression of the Conservative party’s founding principles.
Sandra Cortina is a student nurse who works at the Insite clinic in Vancouver.
Feb 15 2011
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