On supervised-injection clinics, Ontario Liberals discover a convenient ‘division’

Posted on April 13, 2012 in Child & Family Debates

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NationalPost.com – Full Comment
Apr 12, 2012.    Scott Stinson

In her response to the release of a report that called for supervised drug-injection sites in Toronto and Ottawa on Wednesday, provincial Health Minister Deb Matthews said the McGuinty government was happy to receive good advice and that “we make our decisions based on evidence.”

The next sentence: “Experts continue to be divided on the value of the sites.”

Do they, now? Here’s the Canadian Medical Association: “the evidence shows that supervised injection reduces the spread of infectious diseases and the incidence of overdose and death.” Or the Canadian Public Health Association: “The results of more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific articles provide irrefutable evidence that [Insite, Vancouver’s supervised-injection facility] has a positive impact on the health of the people who use its services and a positive impact on the surrounding community.” And then there’s the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, which said last fall of Insite: “Its benefits have been proven. There has been no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada during its eight years of operation.”

That the justices reached that conclusion after hearing evidence before the country’s top court about a year ago was not all that unexpected: when a lawyer representing the federal government, which had been trying to shut down Insite for years, was asked if it disputed the notion that “lives are being saved, diseases are being prevented,” the lawyer conceded that was a “fair observation.”

Which makes it hard to square the accuracy of Ms. Matthews’ statement about a division among experts. Asked by theNational Post on Thursday if the minister could provide an example of a study that found negative impacts after the opening of such a clinic, a spokeswoman for Ms. Matthews offered this explanation: “As the Minister said in her statement, experts continue to be divided on the value of the sites — these experts include police, medical experts and other community leaders.”

Well, yes. If one expands the definition of “expert” to include police and other community leaders, then indeed there is a noticeable division among them on the subject of supervised-injection sites. Ottawa’s mayor and police chief are resolutely against them. It’s not a big leap to imagine that Toronto’s mayor would be similarly disinclined to pursue one in his town. And if we include, say, newspaper columnists under the definition of community leader, then division abounds — just one Toronto Sun column alone on Wednesday referred to a supervised-injection site as a “free drug club” and “hedonism for lazy drug addicts” while warning that the clinics would be a “crazy party centre” that would attract drug tourists from all corners.

And it’s that type of blowback — reasoned and otherwise — that is surely driving the McGuinty government’s response to a report carried out by researchers at the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Ontario HIV Treatment Network.

The report, which called for three supervised-injection sites in Toronto and two in Ottawa, could have been met by the Liberals in a number of ways. They could have taken tentative steps toward a pilot project, exploring whether there was community support in either city for such a trial run. They could have formed a committee or struck a task force. They could have just said they were going to give the report a serious mulling over. Instead, within moments of the thing being tabled, Ms. Matthews was out to squelch it. “We have no plans to pursue supervised sites at this time,” said her statement.

Is it a surprise that the Premier and his health minister, with a budget yet to pass, a deficit still to wrangle with and a minority government hanging in the balance, would take a pass on the messy business of shepherding the proposed injection sites into reality? It is not. Even the report’s authors noted that residents who were supportive of such a site in theory “did not necessarily want to see a supervised facility in their own neighbourhoods.” It’s easy to imagine a local controversy over an injection clinic blowing up into an election issue, too. Remember the Mississauga power plant?

But, “we make our decisions based on evidence”? Not in this case, they didn’t.

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