B.C. injection site to continue operating, for now

Health Minister Tony Clement says North America's only safe-injection site for heroin addicts, in Vancouver, can stay open until his department makes a decision by the end of 2007.

Health Minister Tony Clement says North America's only safe-injection site for heroin addicts, in Vancouver, can stay open untilhis departmentmakes a decision by the end of 2007.

Health Canada gave the clinica three-yearoperating exemption under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, but The exemption was set to expire on Sept. 12.

Clement announced the extension in aa statement issued Friday, but said hecould not give another three-year exemption, as the site's supporters had been urging.

The health minister said that before a decision was made, additional studies would be conducted into how supervised injection sites affect crime prevention and treatment.

"Do safe injection sites contribute to lowering drug use and fighting addiction? Right now the only thing the research to date has proven conclusively is drug addicts need more help to get off drugs," Clement said.

"Given the need for more facts, I am unable to approve the current request to extend the Vancouver site for another three-and-a-half years."

Intensive campaign

Thesafe-injection siteopened its doors in the Downtown Eastside in September 2003. It was established in Vancouver following a intensive campaign for a safe, clean place for the estimated 5,000 injection drug users in the neighbourhood, an area with above average HIV and hepatitis C infection rates.

TheB.C. government provided $1.2 million to get it startedand provides operating funding through Vancouver Coastal Health.

The impending deadline for the first three-year operating exemptionhad resulted in a number of declarations for and against the site in recent weeks.

Last week, former Vancouver mayors Mike Harcourt, Philip Owen and Sen. Larry Campbell released a joint statement in support ofkeeping the Insite clinic, saying that it made sense both scientifically and financially.

Current Mayor Sam Sullivan and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell,another former Vancouver mayor, have previously spoken out in support of the clinic.

Police have mixed reaction

The reaction from the law enforcement community has been mixed. In May, Vancouver Police Insp. Larry Thompson credited the clinic for its interventions and said the department was in favour of another exemption.

But on Friday,Tony Cannavino, the president of the Canadian Police Association, said the group, which represents 54,000 members, voted unanimously on a motion to pressOttawa to stop financing Vancouver's safe-injection site and invest in a national drug strategy instead.

As well, the province's RCMP spokesman this week said the site was problematic.

"We only support an injection site that would have as its approach the four pillars strategy, and that of course is harm reduction, education, prevention and enforcement. Does this particular program have those four pillars? It doesn't at this point," saidStaff-Sgt. John Ward.

Report contradicts critics

That statement came despite a report from two criminologists commissioned by the RCMP, Ray Corrado of Simon Fraser University and Irwin Cohen of University College of the Fraser Valley.

"The main argument for those against supervised injection sites would be that it would bring crime to the area, that it would increase the use of drugs, that it would actually encourage people who don't use drugs to begin to use drugs," said Cohen. "And none of that has been borne out by the research anywhere."

However, Cohennotedthatthesite is not yetattracting enough users, adding thatthe vast majority of addictsin the area are still injecting drugs somewhere else.

Statistics compiled by the clinic over a two-year period ending March 31 show there was an average of 607 visits a day to the clinic, and that 453 addicts overdosed at the clinic — but with no deaths because of the trained staff.

There were also 4,083 counselling referrals during the two-year period, including about 1,600 referrals to addiction counselling.

Some city activists have vowed they would keep running a siteeven if the federalgovernment withdraws its support.

Clementalso said in his statementthat Ottawa is planning to launch a new national drug strategy.

"We believe the best form of harm reduction is to help addicts to break the cycle of dependency," Clement said. "We also need better education and prevention to ensure Canadians don't get addicted to drugs in the first place."