Bill C-2 spreads Harper's misinformation about harm reduction

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Photo: flickr/yaokcool

Bill C-2, known as the Respect for Communities Act, was drafted by the government in response to the Supreme Court ruling of September 2011 that supported the continued operation of Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection facility.

It has completed first and second readings in the House of Commons and is currently one-third of the way to becoming law.

If passed, Bill C-2 will create substantial barriers to the establishment of safe consumption sites, such as Vancouver's Insite.

The proposed legislation does not seek to challenge the Supreme Court ruling by outlawing safe injection sites outright, but instead will require any proposed new sites to undergo an elaborate and rigorous process in order to obtain approval.

Would-be clinics must provide 27 pieces of information to the federal Minister of Health, including letters from two provincial cabinet ministers and the chief of police for the municipality where the clinic is proposed to be located, and criminal background checks for everybody working at the clinic. And if a clinic employee moved to Canada from another country within the past ten years, the bill requires a criminal background check from the person's country of origin.

These requirements have been condemned by health providers as onerous, presenting a barrier to health care for people with addictions.

Harper ignores facts about harm reduction

Like other safe injection sites around the world, Insite has been found to prevent overdose deaths, reduce needle-sharing and public needle litter, and help connect its clientele with addiction treatment services. The World Health Organization endorses safe injection sites as a valuable tool in the harm reduction armamentarium that among other benefits, helps prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS.

And the events of early October, when 31 people at Insite were saved from death by overdose after using heroin laced with the many-fold more potent drug fentanyl, serves as a reminder that street level interventions not only offer public health and societal benefits, but also can directly avert tragedies in our communities.

But the continuing opposition of the Harper government remains steadfast in the face of both incontrovertible scientific evidence, ongoing community support and defeat at the Supreme Court.

"Allowing and/or encouraging people to inject heroin into their veins is not harm reduction, it is the opposite… We believe it is a form of harm addition," said former federal Health Minister Tony Clement at the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City in 2008.

A few weeks later, back in Canada addressing the Canadian Medical Association General Council, he said that Insite "undercuts the ethic of medical practice and sets a debilitating example for all physicians and nurses, both present and future in Canada."

During the same address Clement asked, "Is it ethical for health care professionals to support the administration of drugs that are of unknown substance or purity or potency?"

And when the Supreme Court ruled that Insite could continue to operate, former federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the government was "disappointed," and "We believe that the system should be focused on preventing people from becoming drug addicts."

Cons con public with misinformation

An examination of the press release introducing Bill C-2 reveals the misdirection and obfuscation the Harper government uses to bolster its stance against safe injection sites. The government's position is riddled with internal contradictions and consistently contradicts the science of addiction medicine.

For instance, "Substances obtained from illicit sources affect public safety, may fuel organized crime, and undermine the health of individuals" is a true statement, but in this context, it conflates the benefits of harm reduction with the risks of continued drug use.

"Families deserve to be heard before a drug injection site, where illegal drugs will be consumed, is allowed to be built in their neighbourhood," says federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose, implying that people with addictions don't have families, and neighbourhoods across Canada don't have illicit drug use occuring already.

Stating that "We believe that the system should be focused on preventing people from becoming drug addicts" appears laudable on its face, but it suggests that allowing safe injection sites will enable drug addiction. There is no evidence suggesting that these sites increase drug use, but rather the reverse: when Insite opened, there was observed a 30 per cent increase in the use of detoxification services.

Safe injection sites actually help reach the Harper government's purported goals of treating drug addiction and reducing drug use while curtailing drug-related crime.

Instead though, the Conservatives propose to erect a legislative barrier to the establishment of these sites. They appear to believe that drug addiction occurs in a bubble, committed by people who don't have families, who frequent sketchy neighbourhoods devoid of children.

Their stance not only denies health care services to marginalized people, but also is a testament to the folly of ideologically based governing.

Denise Denning is a pharmacist who trained in addiction treatment at the Addiction Research Foundation (now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) and has worked for the past 17 years primarily dispensing methadone to people both in and out of jail.

Photo: flickr/yaokcool

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