Safe Injection Site and Science

Science Not Only Factor in Determining Future of Safe Injection Site
Posted on: Friday, 2 May 2008, 18:00 CDT

By Bruce Cheadle, THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA – Scientific evidence alone will not determine the fate of Vancouver’s supervised injection site, an undersecretary to Health Minister Tony Clement said Friday.

Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher said his Conservative government will make a “rational and thoughtful decision based on science” when it comes to extending or ending a federal exemption for Insite, North America’s only such program.

But Fletcher told The Canadian Press the science is conflicting, so Clement will have to assess what Fletcher calls the “realities of the situation.”

“People will see that the government will make the right decision for the right reasons,” said Fletcher.

He listed the United Nations’ 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and issues of crime prevention, rehabilitation, homelessness and mental health among the other factors involved in the government’s decision.

“There’s multiple sides to this and they all have to be taken into consideration,” said Fletcher.

His comment came after opposition MPs in the Commons grilled the government over published criticism in a drug policy journal that accused the Conservatives of attempting to muzzle scientific study of the Insite program.

According to the International Journal of Drug Policy, the government offered to fund further study of Insite under the condition that no new research be published until after the current licence expires on June 30.

“They actually wanted the thing to quietly expire before yet another piece of research came out showing it worked,” Liberal MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett said outside the Commons.

In the House, Fletcher had called Bennett’s accusation “ill-informed,” but he did not elaborate.

It’s just the latest front in a pitched battle over the supervised injection pilot project, which began in 2003.

In Vancouver, Evan Wood, one of the authors of the recent study, said the “prime minister is ignoring science in this area.”

“The revelation in this article is some information we obtained which demonstrates that (the federal government) is trying to suppress research in this area,” said Wood.

“The other issue that is relevant is the fact that there is such international condemnation . . . one calling (the federal government’s stance) a “policy horror story.”

Wood said that Clement had stated several months ago that research “has raised new questions.”

“The research hasn’t raised new questions. The research has answered questions. There is a huge academic consensus here.”

Two Vancouver groups are currently in B.C. Supreme Court seeking to keep Insite open.

The provincial government, Vancouver’s mayor and the Vancouver Police Department are among those who endorse the program, and numerous scientific studies have sung its praises.

Peer-reviewed studies have suggested the program minimizes harm to addicts, reduces the spread of disease and directs addicts toward rehabilitation programs while reducing emergency health-care and law enforcement budgets.

But opponents say allowing people to inject illegal opiates under supervision promotes drug use by facilitating addiction.

“Because if you remain an addict, I don’t care how much harm you reduce,you’re going to have a short and miserable life,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last October.

Harper has also served notice that empirical evidence does not necessarily determine Conservative policy when it comes to crime and punishment.

In speech to party faithful this January on the second anniversary of his government’s election, Harper mocked those who cite falling crime rates to question his law-and-order agenda.

“(They) try to pacify Canadians with statistics,” said the prime minister. “Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem.”

NDP MP Libby Davies, whose Vancouver riding is home to Insite and its clientele, said study after study – and evidence on the street – shows the program works.

Local, national and international studies have all shown the benefits, she said, yet the Conservatives continue to question Insite on the basis of their subjective impressions.

“And that’s what is just so horrific about this situation,” Davies said outside the Commons, “with so many independent reviews about Insite on economic, health and social grounds that show it’s safe and it’s saving lives and it saves money.”

Insite opened in the Downtown Eastside for intravenous drug users to inject their own heroin and cocaine with clean needles and under the supervision of a nurse.

Addicts who get their fix at the site, instead of in alleys and decrepit hotels, can also access referrals to detoxification and rehabilitation services, including one that recently opened atop the Insite facility.

The federal government has twice exempted the site from federal legislation that would otherwise see operators charged under federal drug laws.

The current exemption expires June 30, when Clement must decide whether to grant another exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act or amend legislation that prohibits it.

Source: Canadian Press

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