INSITE takes on Conservatives

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During the early days of the last federal election, Stephen Harper blew into Vancouver and threatened a Conservative government would close down INSITE, scaring the pants off everyone. So what changed?

Last week, in an uncharacteristic move, the Conservative government was forced to bow to public pressure and allow INSITE, North America's first safe injection facility for Intravenous Drug Users, to continue for another 18 months under a special exemption under section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

This is a huge victory, because the Conservative government has, from day one of the struggle to open a safe site for injecting, vociferously opposed such an idea. It clashes with their narrow views that the correct response to drug use is primarily law enforcement, ignoring harm reduction measures where drug users are treated with respect and dignity.

INSITE has been open for three years, but it took six long years prior to that, to take what was a seemingly radical idea from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and turn it into a functioning, publicly-funded, peer-assisted, scientifically-evaluated operation.

Located on the much maligned 100 block East Hastings Street, INSITE has been under a media microscope from the beginning and has been scrutinized, poked and batted about and described as everything from the worst evil, to a life-saving centre.

This victory to keep INSITE open, at least for now, is worth taking a closer look at. There are some important markers for activists who have been frustrated by the lack of response and accountability of the Conservatives, on so many issues of concern, whether it is child-care funding, housing or safety.

What forced them to pay attention this time and apparently change course and make a decision that is contrary to their political direction?

During the early days of the last federal election, Stephen Harper blew into Vancouver and threatened a Conservative government would close down INSITE, scaring the pants off everyone.

So what changed?

The short answer, I believe, is the Conservatives were overwhelmed by a well-planned, well- executed, and multi-layered campaign, that made it politically impossible to just say no.

This well-organized community campaign had tremendous impact and included an interactive website. That, in and of itself, set the momentum and direction for INSITE's survival. In my office, we had already written numerous letters, statements, press releases etc, but it was our call for emails and letters to support the community campaign and to write to the federal health Minister that generated the biggest response I have ever seen on any issue I have worked on. The response from many hundreds of people from across Canada was immediate and solid. I attribute this in part, to the growing media coverage that became national, and even international, as the World AIDS Conference, took place in Toronto in August.

Certainly the media attention helped focus and direct people who were generally sympathetic to INSITE and wanted to act. But it's important to note that it was the community activists who set the media stage and kept it going with new developments, actions and new support every few days.

Two other factors made a key difference: multi-party support, and academic support. For example, INSITE had the backing of three former Vancouver Mayors and the current Mayor, representing support from across the political spectrum. The ongoing scientific/academic comment and validation fuelled the case that INSITE is part of a bigger drug policy strategy that is working and helping people and local communities, were very important.

So often, I encounter folks who understandably feel discouraged and hopeless about changing the political course to a progressive outcome in the face of neo-conservative politics. Yet when we take something on, define it, organize, and develop broad and multi-faceted actions, there can be clear victories.

In the case of INSITE it ran the gamut from stopping traffic at busy Toronto intersections for a breathtaking minute (so well-organized through the community coalition group, INSITE For Community Safety), to publicizing academics and their papers and evaluations, to masses of emails and letters from ordinary people at all layers of society. But most importantly, it was drug users themselves — so often marginalized and demonized by society, who spoke out about their own lives and experience, and demanded our attention and support.

There was a very strong underlying message that came through again and again. It is that, all lives matter. Human dignity matters — whether it's AIDS victims in Africa or poor drug users in the Downtown Eastside. This powerful message, spoken in so many ways, by so many different people, could not be countered by Conservative bafflegab and rhetoric.

Now, there is one last piece to this story, for the bigger battle is yet to come.

When after months of silence, the Conservatives finally put out their press release giving the reprieve for INSITE on September 1, only 11 days until the deadline, late on a Friday, on the eve of a long weekend, hoping no-one would notice (most of all them!), the biggest part of the story went largely ignored in media coverage.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief — but the Conservatives had a final message: INSITE is okay for now, but by the way, the Conservatives are going to re-write Canada's drug strategy.

In his press release, the Health Minister promises more “studies,” more anti-harm reduction, more funds slated to punitive enforcement, and more regressive legislation.

“The Minister also noted he will be working with his federal counterparts at Justice and Public Safety, along with the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, to accelerate the launch and implementation of a new National Drug Strategy (NDS), which will put greater emphasis on programs that reduce drug and alcohol abuse.” (September 1, 2006, Health Canada.)

Interestingly, the media gave little attention and coverage to this part of the announcement, yet it is a clear signal that the Conservatives are gearing up for something bigger.

In 2002, a special Parliamentary Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs I was on, supported the so-called 4 Pillar Approach: Harm Reduction, Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement, as a sensible drug policy for Canada, recognizing the need for a health-based strategy that moves from the fundamentally flawed law enforcement framework.

These recommendations came after comprehensive hearings and extensive testimony from across Canada. Of course the Conservative members of the Committee were opposed to this approach, and the call in the report for the government of Canada to “...remove any federal regulatory or legislative barriers to the implementation of scientific trials and pilot projects, and assist and encourage the development of protocols to determine the effectiveness of safe injection facilities in reducing the social and health problems related to injection drug use.”

So, they appear determined to undo years of research, by the Parliamentary Committee as well as by groups like the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users), BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and endless international research that supports INSITE, harm reduction, and the comprehensive strategy it is part of.

All in all, a bigger battle is looming, and it will come soon. Clearly the Conservatives think they have bought themselves some time to undo progressive drug policy reform work.

But I am optimistic. The community is well organized on this one, indeed we are already moving far ahead, as groups like Creative Resistance, challenge drug prohibition laws and policy as the cause of much pain and misery.

There are always lessons and tactics to be learned as we move forward. The Conservatives may think they have this one in the bag but I don't think so. When we organize and get creative, we have a lot of power!

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