No Charter right to safe injection site, Ottawa says in court documents
A B.C. court ruling that prevents Ottawa from shutting down Vancouver's controversial supervised-injection site is akin to exempting kleptomaniacs from theft laws or alcoholics from drunk-driving laws, federal government lawyers say.
In documents filed this week, lawyers for the federal government say a B.C. Supreme Court judge wrongly turned a policy issue into a legal one when he ruled earlier this year that the facility could remain open.
"The issue of whether supervised-injection sites are good public policy is not a matter for the courts," say the documents filed in the B.C. Court of Appeal, which will hear the case in April.
The federal government, which wants Insite shut down, is appealing a decision that struck down parts of Canada's drug laws because they could prevent the facility from legally operating.
That decision gave the federal government until June 30, 2009, to bring the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in line with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and gave Insite an immediate constitutional exemption to stay open.
Justice Ian Pitfield ruled that denying drug addicts access to the health-care services at Insite violates their charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person.
He said the drug law is too arbitrary because it doesn't provide specific exceptions that would allow Insite to operate without the blessing of the federal health minister.
However, the federal government argues it isn't required to carve out exemptions that would allow habitual offenders, such as users of narcotic drugs, to flagrantly violate the law.
"This is no more justifiable than requiring an exception from the law of theft from kleptomaniacs, or an exception from the impaired driving laws for alcoholics," the documents say. "Treating addicts with sensitivity on sentencing may be good policy, but giving them a free pass from conviction is not."
Much of Pitfield's earlier decision focused on the scourge of drug-addiction in Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, where Insite has operated with exemptions from federal drug laws since 2003.
Pitfield concluded that addiction is clearly a disease and the federal government can't force addicts to inject drugs in an unsafe environment when a safe one is available.
Other treatment options available
In the appeal, the federal government argues illegal narcotics aren't part of the treatment for drug addiction but rather the root cause, and says there is a range of other treatment options available.
Federal Health Minister Tony Clement has repeatedly criticized Insite since the B.C. Supreme Court ruling, saying the site facilitates addiction and questioning the ethics of doctors who support the facility.
Mark Townsend of the Portland Hotel Society, which operates Insite and was among the groups that launched the initial court challenge, said the Conservative government wants to shut down the facility for purely political reasons.
"They're just ignoring the evidence, what they're really doing is clutching at straws," Townsend said in an interview Friday.
"The constitution's actually set up to protect people from politicians, and the drug users deserve some protection, they deserve some kindness."
The appeal could have implications for addiction treatment across the country.