In a landmark ruling late last week, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a sharp rebuke to the federal government’s attempt to shut down Vancouver’s safe-injection site for intravenous drug users, and in the process opened the way for other such facilities across the country, including in Montreal.
The ruling declared that the Insite facility, in operation for the past eight years, should be allowed to remain open because the “harm-reduction” service it provides outweighs the flouting of Canada’s drug law entailed in its operation. It is noteworthy that the ruling came backed by a unanimous vote of the top court’s nine judges.
It was also widely hailed – though not in large-C and small-c conservative circles, where such facilities are decried as legitimized shooting galleries for scofflaw junkies. Among those applauding the ruling within hours were the Liberal and New Democrat health critics, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Canadian Medical Association, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario and the mayor of Vancouver.
It is notable that the court deftly sidestepped the jurisdictional arguments raised during hearings in the case. Federal lawyers had held that it was a matter of enforcing criminal drug laws, which are within Ottawa’s purview, while British Columbia’s lawyers maintained that Insite falls under health-care policy, which is a provincial prerogative.
Rather, the argument that was critical to the court’s decision was that of health-care professionals who have determined that the facility, where addicts can inject their own drugs with guaranteed clean needles and under the supervision of nurses, saves lives (in preventing overdoses) and prevents the spread of deadly infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C.
The court concluded that shutting down Insite would amount to an ideologically driven move that would deprive Insite clientele of Charter of Rights protections for life and security of the person, and effectively deny them fundamental justice. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote on behalf of the court: “The potential denial of health services and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to injection drug users outweigh any benefits that might be derived from maintaining an absolute prohibition on possession of illegal drugs on Insite’s premises.”
Little evidence has been produced that Insite aggravated illegal drug use. But there have been numerous scientific studies, peer-reviewed and published in prestigious journals, that concluded the facility saved lives, decreased crime in its neighbourhood, encouraged rehabilitation and was of general benefit to public health.
But for all its documented health benefits, Insite is by no means a panacea. The fact is that it does enable the consumption of illegal and dangerous drugs. It should also be taken into consideration by advocates of such facilities that Insite was a very specific response to a very localized situation – Vancouver’s skid row Downtown Eastside – for which there is no really comparable equivalent in other Canadian cities, including Montreal.
Any extension of the Insite experiment should be carefully planned, with a strict emphasis on treating addicts and steering them into rehabilitation programs rather than merely offering an accommodating place to indulge nasty habits. Its ultimate effect should be to reduce, not maintain or increase, the number of addicts. The location for such sites should also be scrupulously chosen, with due respect and consideration for neighbouring residents and businesses.
Failure to observe such precautions would see public support for what now stands as an enlightened ruling quickly deteriorate.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette OCTOBER 4, 2011 5:01 PM
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