I’m an addict. I ran from my pain for twenty years – from thirteen to thirty-three I drank and ingested more substances than I care to think about. The only wonder is that I managed to stay alive long enough to stop. I was lucky. So I’m not about to tell you that drugs are romantic or that being a drunk or an addict anything special. There’s nothing romantic about having to steal from those you love in order to fulfill an addiction; there’s no excuse for a betrayal of trust of that magnitude.
Yet I don’t think I was evil, or that those who are addicted are criminals. Addictions can cause criminal behaviour because the need they create in the person has to be met, but the addiction itself is an illness that needs to be treated. That doesn’t meant that an addict is not responsible for their criminal behaviour because they are, but there must be a distinction made between the illness and the criminal behaviour. I went to jail for my criminal behaviour which was right, but I was not punished for being sick which was also right.
Like I said before I was lucky. Of course it didn’t hurt that by the time I was before the courts I had already begun to seek help on my own – but I was still fortunate that the judge who sentenced me was compassionate, and understood that I was already making an effort to get clear. He could have sentenced me to a year in jail, instead he sentenced me to seven weekends, four of which I served in a halfway house. That way I was able to continue going to therapy and receiving treatment for the root cause of my addictions.
In 2003 the city of Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada, was given permission by the federal government to open Insite, a safe injection facility. Addicts are allowed to come there with their drugs and inject under the supervision of nurses, using clean needles, and without fear of arrest. It was originally given a three year exemption from the Federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and has had two one year extensions granted while international research was reviewed and new research was conducted in order to gauge the facility’s effectiveness.
The last extension expires June 30th, 2008 and the people who run the facility have been desperately trying to talk with either Prime Minister Steven Harper or his Health Minister Tony Clement, the men who will make the decision whether the site can continue to stay open. Unfortunately neither man seems to want to talk to anybody from the facility directly. Mark Townsend is the executive director of the organization that runs Insite, and has been trying for two and half years to arrange a meeting with either of the men to explain why it is a science and public health issue, and shouldn’t be about ideology or politics.
Insite is about saving peoples lives; by getting intravenous drug users off the street and preventing the spread of disease facilitated by the use of shared needles, and through helping people get off drugs. They do not dispense any drugs, or offer treatment on site, but can and do refer people to detoxification programs when they ask about them. In an effort to save the facility, and convince the federal government that it should be considered part of the health care system in British Columbia, the staff of Insite have supplied extensive research that proves its success and that it enjoys widespread support across Canada for its efforts.
The problem is that it doesn’t appear the government is listening to anything anybody says. Prime Minister Steven Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada is notorious for its socially conservative positions. While the previous government was prepared to introduce legislation decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, the Conservatives are more in line with the “War On Drugs” policy advocated by the American administration. Although they have yet to make any formal announcement about Insite, their history, combined with recent actions and statements, don’t bode well for its future.
When Steven Harper was campaigning in the last federal election he made a point of stopping in Vancouver to announce that his party would brook no leniency toward illicit drug users and that they were the only party willing to do anything about “the drug crisis in Canada”. When an international police organization, that includes former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada’s federal police force, that advocates treatment over punishment for street drugs issued a statement in support of Insite, it was the Health Minister’s staff who gave reporters the name of a police organization who held an opposing view.
Perhaps most telling was the government’s reaction to research they had commissioned that ended up supporting Insite. They said that science alone would not be the deciding factor. An interesting statement to make when you consider that the purpose for delaying a final decision these last two years has been so that proper research could be conducted into the effectiveness of the facility. Now that science has proven that safe injection sites at the very least do not encourage drug use, and in fact are responsible for a decline in both drug use and the spread of disease, the government is downplaying the importance of these findings. It’s not hard to guess what their reaction would have been if the findings had shown that the facility had increased drug usage and encouraged people to stay addicted.
However, they didn’t. The findings substantiated what has been proven over and over again in countries around the world where needle exchanges and safe injection sites are the norm. Fewer people die of overdoses, fewer people catch and spread diseases, and more people are encouraged to stop using drugs and seek help for their addiction problems.Yet, in spite of all the evidence supporting it, Canada’s government is apparently getting ready to shut Insite’s doors.
Isn’t it time to stop saying no, and start saying yes to safe injection sites? There’s no crime in showing a little compassion once in a while.