A battle wages over the legality of Insite, North America's only safe, supervised injection site, located in Vancouver's Downtown East Side. Friday, Sept 30th, the BC Supreme Court will deliver its verdict.
This decision could very well mark the direction our course of action as a society will take in terms of dealing with the persistent problem of addiction. The War on Drugs has failed, said the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The current approach of criminalizing addicts adds to their stress, denying them help and exacerbating the problem to an extreme degree.
Supervised injection won't end anyone's addiction, but it brings drug users into contact with healthcare professionals in a situation where they won't be arrested or condemned. If they overdose, there will be someone to treat them. They won't get an infection from a dirty needle, or from diluting their heroin with puddle water. And if they decide they want to get clean, they'll know where they can go for help.
Will we treat the sick as pariahs and steadfastly stick to an approach that has consistently failed, or will proceed with compassion and pragmatism?
Liz Evans, executive director of Vancouver's Portland Hotel Society (Gabor Mate wrote about his experiences as a doctor there in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts) wrote the following appeal on the Facebook event page for a gathering at Insite of concerned people, awaiting the announcement of the court's decision:
In our neighbourhood, a small but unique project called Insite, exists. It is the result of the incredible efforts of many people in our community and in our City, and in our Province. Many individuals, groups, academics and researchers who have come together and fought for it to exist, and fought for its continued existence, for over a decade now.
This isn’t just about a building or an initiative in the Downtown Eastside. It’s about systemic and National change in our approach to people who suffer from addiction.
This Friday morning, a enormous decision will be announced determining whether or not Insite can stay open, indicating the direction our Country is heading in, in terms of the future for people living with addiction.
On May 12th 2011, the Canadian Supreme Court heard the Federal Government appeal of the previous BC Supreme Court rulings that Insite is protected under section 7 of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the Province of BC's constitutional jurisdiction over health care, in supporting this vital primary health care facility.
Up until now, we have said that our country has no room for people struggling with life as an active addict. People who suffer intense pain, who have been branded as criminals, due to the arbitrary distinction made between addictive substances such as alcohol and cigarettes, or cocaine and heroin.
This group of people, to whom we are all connected – are our family members, our friends, and our loved ones and our neighbours. They are currently treated like animals, and can die as a result of being “thrown out”.
We have collectively told them, that unless you are clean…. Your life does not matter. You will be denied housing and services. It’s OK if you die of a drug overdose, it’s OK if you get an infectious disease, it’s OK if you live on the street, get beaten up, get HIV or hepatitis C, or go to jail.
This is our humanistic Canadian Society. For the drug addict, it is anything but humane.
I believe in 30 years we will look back in disbelief at the lack of wisdom we have shown in our policies surrounding some of our Society’s most fragile and sick individuals who are not accessing proper treatment, dignity or care.
Insite is only one very tiny piece of what’s needed to put the puzzle into place, but it is an icon of real systemic change. Insite communicates the message to the drug user that your life is worth saving and that your life is worth living. That we believe in you as a human being, in spite of the fact that you are injecting drugs into your body.
It is a symbol of hope for our collective humanity.
If Insite wins this Supreme Court ruling we will be sending a message of hope to thousands of people across the country to say that we care about them. We care enough to keep them alive, to bring them in off the streets, to provide them with access to nursing supports, access to treatment and detox, and life saving interventions. Insite saves people’s lives and connects them into a mainstream array of supports and care.
This will be a victory for all of us as Canadians, and it will signal a new direction for our Country, by turning against the simplistic paradigms of the past that have convinced so many that quitting an addiction is just as simple as saying No. Not only has this belief led to enormous suffering, it has misinformed policy, and allowed politicians to avoid making the right decisions. People who live addicted to illicit substances are people.
If we lose this fight, Insite will be none-the-less relevant. We will continue to call upon the Federal Government of this country, who just need to provide a simple letter to keep it open…We will ask our Prime Minister, and our Federal Minister of Health, to grant an exemption for Insite – We will ask that they listen to the millions of dollars worth of scientific evidence, the local experts, the merchants, the doctors, the nurses and the people of Vancouver and British Columbia,
including the Premier of British Columbia and the past five Mayors of Vancouver representing every political stripe, to allow Insite’s life saving work to continue.
To quote Dean Wilson, one of the plaintiffs in the original BC Supreme Court case. "Insite will not be closed. Insite, as well as the comprehensive Onsite treatment program that includes the 30 recovery beds on the two floors above Insite, have both saved my life and put me on the path to recovery. There is no way that myself and the thousands of members of my community are going to let the positive impact of this facility end."
A broad based coalition of community members including church groups, doctors and nurses, local merchants and civic and provincial officials will attempt to contact Stephen Harper to make certain he is aware of the literal life-and-death consequences of the action before him.
In the event that the Supreme Court rule against Insite, “Stephen Harper will have an important choice before him," said fellow plaintiff Shelly Tomic. "He can choose life - or he can choose death for thousands of Canadians suffering while struggling to overcome their addiction."
You are welcome to pop by this Friday morning, to await the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, which we will have via a live link.
PHS Community Services Society
Update I Friday Sept 30: [Edit Chris]. The BC Court ruled today in favour of Insite in an unanimous decision. Read more about it here.