Federal Health Minister gets dose of Insite

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The federal Minister of Health is having a rough time these days.

No matter where Tony Clement turns, or what he reads, Insite is there. It's been a top news story all over the country, and new Insite supporters are announcing themselves every day. Last week, there was even a vigil and gig in support of Insite on Parliament Hill.

Imagine 1000 wooden crosses placed neatly in lines, from the peace flame to the steps leading to the peace tower. Imagine the sound of the anthem Amazing Grace drifting over the grounds, and large banners mounted on the steps with photographs of so-called "junkies" as kids - a reminder to the government that it's real people whose lives we debate and decide.



Across the street, in front of the Prime Minister's office, huge banners declaring "Insite Saves Lives" are hung against the wrought iron fence and held up by demonstrators as cars crept by during rush hour, many honking their horns in support.


Picture all of that and you get the idea of the creativity, and powerful display of advocacy, delivered by the group Friends of Insite as they swept Parliament Hill June 5, sending a strong message to the Conservative Government that they are so wrong on their decisions about Insite.

The vigil grabbed the attention of school kids and other visitors who came to visit Parliament. People stopped to listen to the music and find out what was going on.

The Friends of Insite even brought their own lawyer, the only person in a suit, just in case.

Insite, North America's only safe injection site (SIS), is located on East Hastings Street in my riding in East Vancouver. As a key component of a Harm Reduction strategy, Insite is saving lives and ensuring that chronic drug users can get help and support when they need it. Insite reduces the spread of disease and contributes to the health and safety of the whole community.

The evidence on this is clear. While at least 900 overdoses have occurred at Insite since it began operation, the availability of professional medical care at the facility has meant that not a single person has died from an overdose there. Research from Australia indicates that at least 30-45 deaths would have resulted from the same number of overdoses in the general community. Moreover, research shows Insite has reduced needle sharing and provided and entry point into treatment programs for many users. Studies by criminologists found that Insite did not contribute to increase drug use or public disorder, and that it reduced public injections and drug related litter in the area.

But despite its success over the past five years, Insite is under ferocious attack because it runs contrary to the Conservative government's irrational approach to drug policy. They hate harm reduction programs, and made sure they cut them out when announcing their so-called "anti drug strategy" last September.

But now Insite has become the Health Minister's worst nightmare. Faced with 25 plus favorable, peer reviewed studies, a B.C. Supreme Court decision declaring Insite a health facility and growing public support, even from the B.C. government, the Minister has resorted to desperate arguments to refute the medical and scientific evidence before him.

One of the Ministerâe(TM)s favorite "arguments" is that Insite is used by only a small percentage of drug users. Of course, this completely ignores the fact that Insite is a small pilot project, and is actually running at full capacity. So the truth is that this evidence actually shows Vancouver needs more access to facilities like Insite. There is more demand than the existing facility can meet. Closing Insite would be precisely the wrong thing to do, from a public health perspective.

Even more absurdly, the Minister tries to portray harm reduction as an either-or "alternative" to treatment programs, when in fact both are necessary components of the balanced "four pillars" strategy ( prevention, treatment, harm reduction and law enforcement). Saying that harm reduction is an "alternative" to treatment is like saying that first aid is an "alternative" to physiotherapy for someone with a broken leg.

Like first aid, harm reduction helps keep people alive and stops their health situation getting worse, while treatment, like physiotherapy, helps them work on their problems over the longer term. As Insite supporters have said many times, dead people don't go into treatment.

Clearly, the Minister's arguments don't hold up, and everyone knows it. But on top of all that, this past week, he went one step further. When asked about proposals for Safe Injection facilities in Montreal, the Minister said he'd consider it.

What!? Folks in B.C., myself included, hit the roof. So, he wants to shut down Insite, but he might consider a similar proposal in Montreal. While an SIS in Montreal would be a welcome step forward, is the Minister's apparent double standard simply about getting votes in Quebec? Are partisan politics more important than health care for marginalized drug users in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside? Does the Minister believe their lives count for nothing?

I feel outraged that the Minister of Health says he's willing to consider a proposal from Montreal for a SIS at the same as he's appealing the important B.C. Supreme Court decision supporting Insite that was handed down last week.

Not only is he dead wrong in his specious arguments, but it's also an abuse of his power to try and eliminate a program that has such broad support locally.

Insite has a tough battle ahead, but I am convinced the Conservatives will not be able to shut it down, no matter how hard they try. It's not going to happen.

Sometimes governments fail and fall where they least expect it. Sometimes it's the seemingly little things that trip you up and get under your skin.

On the same day that Insite came to Parliament Hill, the federal Health Minister was leaving to go to a local hotel. He discovered that the person walking next to him was Mark Townsend, a key player in the running of Insite. The Minister got an earful âe" politely, of course - but he wasn't getting off easy.

And that's the thing about Insite. There's a whole community behind it. A community that believes in the rights and dignity of all people, including the drug users who get written off by the likes of the Health Minister and his buddies. It's a community that knows what works and is willing to fight for it.

The Conservative government has taken on more than they realize on this one. And they're going to lose.

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