On Wednesday, March 14, I went to â€œWhat Does the Insite Decision Mean?â€, a public talk by Monique Pongracic-Speier, the lawyer who led the court cases for keeping InSite open against challenges from the Conservative government.
Pongracic-Speier began the talk by giving a brief outline of the Downtown Eastsideâ€™s history with injection-related health issues. After experiencing epidemic after epidemic of HIV, Hepatitis C, and overdoses in the 1990â€™s, the City of Vancouver decided to take a more proactive approach to the problem of drug use and poverty, which resulted in the Four Pillars strategy. InSite was a part of that initiative, and it was granted federal exemption from the Criminal Code under the condition that there be intensive research carried out, allowing drug users to be in possession of drugs at the site.
The controversy came when the Conservatives took power in 2006, and (then) health minister Tony Clement refused to extend the exemption. Two addicts, with the help of Portland Hotel Society and Vancouver Coastal Health, filed a lawsuit with the BC Supreme Court for the right for InSite to stay open, and after two challenges by the Federal Government, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that InSite has a constitutional right to stay open.
This was a result of hard facts, emphasized Pongracic-Speier. The only reason InSite could stand against an onslaught by the Federal Government is because it was backed by many studies (none of which found harm by the facilities, and most found positive effects), the Vancouver Police Department, and local associations. The fact that InSite saved lives and money was indubitable by any means, and in that light of that, all of Canadaâ€™s Chief Justices found closing InSite to be a fundamental violation of the Constitution.
What does this mean for future supervised injection sites and for drug policy reform in Canada? Since the court ruling had so heavily emphasized facts, any future sites will also need to have heavy footing on facts. An application to open such a site would need to be based on the composition of the neighbourhood, the frequency and severity of overdose deaths and intravenously transmitted diseases. While InSiteâ€™s glowing track record will certainly be a boon to future harm-reduction strategies, more experimental methods that do not have a proven basis will still face heavy opposition, at least until Canada is led by a less ideologically-driven government. We can only hope that will be sooner than later.
Photo fromÂ www.undun.org