For the community to decide

Posted on May 31, 2008 in Health Debates – opinions/editorial – For the community to decide
May 30, 2008

‘In my opinion, supervised injection is not medicine; it does not heal the person addicted to drugs,” Tony Clement told Parliament’s health committee this week. The Health Minister is entitled to his opinion, however at odds it may be with the available scientific research. But in attempting to impose those views on other levels of government, social activists, medical professionals and addicts themselves, Mr. Clement is going much too far.

To hear Mr. Clement tell it, the best case against Insite, Vancouver’s safe-injection facility for intravenous drug users, is that it is a misuse of government funds. “Every dollar spent on the supervised injection site diverts a dollar away from the treatment that could lead to full recovery,” he wrote in an opinion article published yesterday.

Apart from the fact that Insite is documented to have directed many addicts toward precisely the sort of treatment he is referring to, it is Mr. Clement’s prerogative to fund programs as he sees fit. But that is not what the debate about Insite’s future is about, however much the minister wishes to make it so. What is at issue is not federal funding, but federal interference in the ability of communities to address drug problems that are tearing them apart.

Of the $3-million that Mr. Clement says it costs to operate Insite each year – others have suggested it costs less – only $500,000 comes from Ottawa. If that money is cut off, there is little doubt that it could be replaced with provincial or municipal funds. (The bulk of the funding already comes from the province through the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.) But Mr. Clement was apparently set to deny the other levels of government that option by refusing to extend an exemption from federal drug laws beyond its June 30 expiry. And now he has announced that the government will appeal a British Columbia Supreme Court ruling that the facility must stay open because it provides addicts with a vital health service.

Vancouver’s police force supports Insite. The city’s mayor, like his predecessor, is among its most vocal advocates. Local residents have been found to have positive views of its impact. While Mr. Clement claims its sole achievement is to prevent a single overdose death per year, they see in it a great deal more: a limit to the spread of disease; an increase in the number of addicts who seek treatment; a reduction in dirty needles left strewn throughout a neighbourhood. Yet Mr. Clement is telling them that their judgment doesn’t matter – that they should ignore both their eyes and the reams of supportive research, because he knows better.

It is unfortunate enough that a rigid adherence to the principles of the failed war-on-drugs approach to addictions is blinding Mr. Clement to Insite’s benefits. Worse, he is determined to impose that ideology upon everyone else.

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