Insite, Vancouver, British Columbia's safe injection facility for intravenous drug users, has been granted a stay of execution, and possible full time salvation. On Tuesday British Columbia's Supreme Court ruled that users and staff be granted a permanent constitutional exemption from Canada's drug laws. In his ruling Judge Ian Pitfield declared that allowing addicts to inject drugs in a safe, medically supervised environment is a matter of sensible health care and they should not be under threat of arrest.
By declaring Insite a health care facility and exempt from drug laws, Justice Pitfield took the facility's fate out of the hands of the federal government. Under their current arrangement, Insite's temporary exemption from Canada's drug laws was due to expire on June 30, and it was widely suspected that the current government was preparing to close the facility down. In his ruling the judge gave the government until June 30, 2009 to redraft Canada's laws to reflect his findings, giving Insite at least a year's reprieve.
While there's no word from the government on whether it will appeal the decision or not, federal Health Minister Tony Clement's reaction made it clear they were preparing to close the facility. He said that the government was disappointed with the ruling, and they believed that the best way to treat addicts was to prevent them from "getting onto illicit drugs in the first place", and that they didn't consider it the best health outcome to keep people in a position to inject illicit drugs. He continued by saying the government is examining their options, and that the Justice Minister will announce whether or not they will appeal Judge Pitfield's ruling.
In his findings Judge Pitfield disagreed with the government's position on the role that Insite and other facilities of its kind has to play in the treatment of addiction. He said that while society can't condone addiction, in the face of its presence it has an obligation to manage it. According to his findings, addiction is an illness and he praised Insite's philosophy of harm reduction aimed at saving lives and reducing the spread of infectious diseases. While agreeing with the basic tenet that there is nothing to be said in favour of injecting controlled substances, he argued that there is much to said against denying health cares services that will cure addicts of their condition.
Insite was first given exemption from the federal Controlled Substance and Drug laws in 2003 by the previous Liberal government. After its initial three-year exemption expired, the current Conservative government granted it two temporary one-year extensions, claiming they needed more time to gather and study information about the success or failure of safe injection sites around the world, and Insite specifically. Considering this government's history of taking a hard line on illicit drug use, and recent announcements implying they didn't care what the research said (when a government study showed Insite in a positive light, Minister Clement said the decision on its fate would be based on more than "just science"), it was widely believed that they were not about to extend the facility's life any further.
However, if Judge Pitfield's ruling stands, and safe injection sites are considered as health care facilities, not only will Insite stay open, the possibility exists for safe injection sites to be opened across Canada. Indeed, British Columbia's Health Minister has already gone on record as saying that not only is the government glad to be able to continue to fund Insite, but they are prepared to start opening new facilities across the province as needed.
Safe injection sites have been saving lives and reducing addiction levels in countries in Europe for years, and it looks like Canada is set to join the ranks of those nations taking a more humane stand on the issue of addiction treatment. As Judge Pitfield reasoned in his findings, society doesn't condemn the individual who chooses to drink or smoke cigarettes to excess, or deny them access to a range of health care services, so there is no rational or logical reason why the approach should be different when the addiction is narcotics.