No federal decision on supervised injection site: lawyer

The Harper government has not decided whether to extend or end federal support for Vancouver's supervised injection site, a lawyer for the federal government has told the Supreme Court of Canada.
Nicole Henry injects morphine he bought on the street at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver on April 18. The Supreme Court is being asked to rule whether Insite should operate under provincial jurisdiction. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The Harper government has not decided whether to extend or end federal support for Vancouver's supervised injection site, a lawyer for the federal government has told the Supreme Court of Canada.

Federal lawyer Robert Frater suggested that the statements by former health minister Tony Clement may have given people the impression Ottawa was steadfast in its determination to shut down the program.

"There are statements by the minister of health that caused them to think it would not be extended," he said.

But on Thursday in Ottawa, Frater told the court no decision has been made on whether to extend its exemption from federal drug laws.

After a B.C. court ruled in favour of the facility in May 2008 Clement said that the Conservative government wanted Insite shut down.

"We've looked at all the evidence, and our position is that the exemption should not be continued," Clement said at the time, describing the scientific evidence as "mixed."

Frater also argued drug control is a job that falls to Ottawa and not the provinces.

"The control of all drugs is ... a matter of exclusive federal control," he said.

The Supreme Court of Canada is being asked to rule on whether the Insite clinic on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside should operate as a health facility under provincial jurisdiction.

The court is also hearing argument on whether closing the site violates the rights of drug addicts living in one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods.

'Life-raft in a sea of misery'

Joseph Arvay, a lawyer for PHS Community Services Society, which operates the facility with the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, said there's no question that Clement's comments meant the federal government will refuse extending the exemption.

"It's completely disingenuous for the minister to come to this court and say, 'Oh, we might grant an exemption,"' Arvay told the court.

"Insite is a life-raft for the people in the Downtown Eastside," Arvay told the court. "A life-raft in a sea of misery."

Insite allows addicts to inject their own heroin under medical supervision, and the B.C. government and other supporters point to a body of peer-reviewed studies  that conclude Insite prevents overdose deaths, reduces the spread of HIV and curbs crime and open drug use.

But the federal government wants it shut down, arguing the facility fosters addiction and runs counter to its tough-on-crime agenda, and prevention and treatment are better ways to curb addiction.

Opened under exemption from drug laws

Insite opened in 2003 after an epidemic rise in overdose deaths in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It was the first supervised-injection site in North America.

It was allowed to operate after the Liberal government of the day granted the facility an exemption from federal drug laws.

There have so far been 1.5 million visits to Insite, with the facility receiving between 700 and 800 visits each day. More than 12,000 people have registered to use the site, with the average user visiting 11 times a month.

The facility has 12 booths where addicts can inject drugs under the supervision of a nurse. There have been roughly 2,400 overdoses at Insite, but no deaths.

The facility is funded entirely by the B.C. government through Vancouver Coastal Health, with a budget of about $2.9 million a year.

The B.C. government has won two lower court rulings supporting its position.

If the high court rules in favour of provincial jurisdiction, Insite's advocates say similar facilities could be opened in Victoria, Toronto and Montreal.