The verdict is in: Insite saves lives

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Insite in Vancouver. Photo: Stephen Dyrgas/Flickr

The verdict is in: Insite saves lives. A study by UBC scientists at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS adds to the collection of data already showing that North America's first medically supervised safer injection facility saves lives and money.

The study, published last month in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, concludes that the opening of Insite in 2003 was associated with a 35 per cent reduction in overdose deaths in the neighbourhood surrounding the facility. This reduction translates into real lives saved at no expense whatsoever to the federal government.

One wonders, then, on what grounds the Harper government continues to waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to challenge Insite's existence all the way to Canada's highest court. With costs to taxpayers accumulating, the Supreme Court of Canada is being asked to consider the B.C. Court of Appeal's decision that the criminal laws which force drug addicts to inject drugs in unsafe environments don't apply at Insite. Meanwhile, the fate of Canada's roughly 100,000 injection drug users hangs in the balance.

If the Court of Appeal decision is upheld following the Supreme Court of Canada hearing, safer injection facilities planned for other urban areas plagued by public drug use and HIV infection will finally be able open their doors to begin saving lives and mitigating the death, disease and violence that comes from injecting drugs in back alleys and under viaducts.

With over 30 peer-reviewed studies proving Insite's benefits, the program is no doubt the most thoroughly studied healthcare facility in Canada's history. Yet, there has not been a single published study that suggests any negative outcomes resulting from the operation of the safer injection facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Not one.

Aside from saving lives through overdose prevention, what studies have demonstrated is that users of Insite are better able to access numerous health services, have adopted safer injection techniques that dramatically reduce the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, have received peer-counselling and support that helps them to manage the harmful effects of their addictions, and are more likely to enter into long-term treatment programs.

Research, and the experience on the ground in the Downtown Eastside, have also clearly refuted claims by Insite's ideological opponents that the operation of Insite will bring a host of social ills such as an increase in crime and violence to the community. The opposite has been observed.

What's more, the operation of Insite has been shown to be a cost-effective program given the vast amounts of public funds that must be spent to deal with the aftermath of unsafe injection. Each case of HIV infection alone is estimated to cost the public a staggering $250,000.

For the Conservatives, however, it's not about science and evidence, but about an ideology that harm-reduction is a morally unacceptable approach to addiction and drug use. It is wrong, they say, to tolerate illegal behaviour even if that may be the only way that a provincial health authority can deliver services to the hardest-to-reach communities. So be it if that policy, as B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ian Pittfield wrote, "contributes to the very harm it seeks to prevent."

Instead, the Conservatives push for more futile "war on drugs" strategies at a cost to taxpayers of nine billion dollars a year, as estimated by the Harper government. Yet, evidence from the United States and Canada clearly demonstrates that enforcement doesn't reduce drug consumption or availability.

The Conservatives, however, cannot claim the moral high ground. Canadians understand that allowing drug addicted people to die when cost effective measures are available to prevent those deaths is an immoral position.

The answer to what ails Vancouver and other North American cities comes from proven, practical approaches to a very complex problem -- not slogans and intolerant positions. The answer lies in evidence-based approaches including harm reduction and addiction treatment. This is why the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Public Health Association support Insite.

Insite has proven supervised injecting facilities prevent overdose deaths and HIV infections, improve uptake of addiction treatment and can improve public disorder. When the Supreme Court of Canada puts the final nail in the coffin of the Harper government's irrational opposition to Insite by upholding the Court of Appeal decision, the real work of addressing addiction in Canada can begin.

Peter Wrinch is CEO of Pivot Legal Society.

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