Haven from life in hell
Supervised injection site in Vancouver that has saved dozens of addicts is fighting for its life, too
Sep 15, 2007 04:30 AM
Vancouver–Earl Crow is alive and surrounded by friends in the Downtown Eastside who've also managed to beat the odds.
Simply being able to survive the alleyways and streets around Main and Hastings is a major accomplishment for Crow.
"I should have been dead long ago and so many people, they're feeling the same thing," says Crow, 46, who has been on and off drugs for almost half of his life.
"This place has connected with people in this community."
What has saved Crow, and others like him, is a supervised injection facility known as Insite, where addicts can receive care from nurses and health professionals.
The injection site, the first and only one of its kind in North America, opened four years ago this month under much fanfare and support from all levels of government.
But while Vancouver and the provincial government still back the project, there are rising concerns that Ottawa may pull its support.
The previous Liberal government granted an exemption under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that allows users to shoot up inside the facility without fear of being arrested.
When the exemption was about to expire last September, federal Health Minister Tony Clement granted a last-minute reprieve. But instead of approving the request for another three-and-a-half years, he gave an extension until only Dec. 31, 2007.
Until a decision is made, additional research is being conducted on the effectiveness of the site, and all available research will be taken into consideration when making a decision as to whether the exemption will be renewed, a spokesperson for Clement said.
Dr. Thomas Kerr, a scientist at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said there have been more than 25 peer-reviewed research papers published in some of the best medical journals in the world, including The Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine.
"It has shown that there has not been a harmful effect and yet we still have a government that is ideologically opposed," says Kerr.
"Minister Clement can honour the weight of the scientific evidence and recognize that there's been a number of public health and public order benefits, or he can make a decision based on ideology."
In August, a community group in Vancouver launched a volunteer-driven organization to gather signatures and letters from supporters and have been faxing the minister's office in Ottawa daily.
Nathan Allen, a co-ordinator for Insite for Community Safety, says the 4,000 letters will be boxed up and sent to the health minister next month in the hope that the stories will be enough to convince Ottawa to keep the site going.
In one handwritten letter, a user recounted the names of all the people she believes would have been saved had the facility opened earlier.
In another letter addressed to the Prime Minister, someone wrote to say the site has kept the streets cleaner and reduced the number of dropped syringes in the alleyways.
In addition to public pressure, lawsuits have been launched to force the government to keep the site open. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users filed an action in B.C. Supreme Court this summer against the federal government seeking a court-ordered exemption to enable Insite to stay open beyond the Dec. 31 extension date.
In another suit, two addicts, Dean Wilson, 51, and Shelley Tomic, 39, who are regular heroin users, claim that if the government doesn't provide the exemption, it will deprive them of their constitutional rights and their pursuit of "life, liberty and security."
Lawyer Monique Pongracic-Speier, who is representing the two claimants, said the suit claims that Wilson and Tomic's constitutional rights will be violated if the federal government shuts down the site. At some point, the lawsuits will probably merge, Pongracic-Speier said.
The government has responded to the lawsuits saying they are without merit.
If the lawsuits and the public pressure fail, a third option has emerged in recent weeks – cutting the federal government out of the facility and running it without support from Ottawa. The federal government funds research for the injection site, but it does not provide direct funding, which comes from the city and province.
Liberal Senator Larry Campbell, the former Vancouver mayor who opened the site in 2003, says he doesn't believe permission is needed from the government.
"I will keep it going and there are lots of people who won't let them shut this health-care facility down," he says. "This is one of the few peaceful places in the Downtown Eastside and people's lives are being saved in that place. So there's no doubt in my mind that we will keep it open whatever way we can."