British Columbia

Vancouver safe-injection site supporters pleased by court decision

Supporters are pleased about a B.C. Supreme Court decision regarding Insite, a safe-injection facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, while critics are dissappointed the bigger issues remain unresolved.

Court decision will keep Insite open until June 2009

Supporters are pleased about a B.C. Supreme Court decision regarding Insite, a supervised safe-injection facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, while critics are disappointed the bigger issues remain unresolved.

In a 60-page ruling Tuesday, Justice Ian Pitfield gave Insite an exemption from Canada's drug laws until the end of June 2009.

Certain sections of the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act are inconsistent with Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the ruling says.

Ottawa had until June 30 this year to decide whether to extend the exemption it granted to allow Insite to remain open, but a group of addicts and the Portland Hotel Society, which runs the site, asked the court to intervene.

They argued the site should be the responsibility of the provincial government because it is a health-care facility.

Mark Townsend, director of the Portland Hotel Society, applauded the ruling as a triumph.

"It's a major victory, really — a judge for the first time in Canada has said that this project is about health care so the Controlled Substance and Drugs Act does not apply to it, so that is a major victory," said Townsend.

Townsend said the ruling means it will be business as usual at the site for the next year.

The lawyer for the Portland Hotel Society said the judge recognized the site provides a necessary service to people battling addiction.

"The court ... affirmed the right of people with serious addictions to access the health care they need to deal with the addictions and the coincidental health affects of those addictions," Monique Pongracic-Speier said in an interview.

She added while the decision was based on the situation in the Downtown Eastside, it has implications across the country.

"So if the Parliament of Canada decides that it's not going to amend the laws ... then those laws are off the books," she said.

"They [supporters of the safe-injection site] don't want to see open-season on trafficking, and it would be my expectation that the federal government will update the laws."

Safe injection site seen as health clinic

Senior media relations officer Viviana Zanocco of the Coastal Health Authority, which runs the safe-injection site, said the "shooting gallery," as it is sometimes called, is supported by a wide range of politicians and police officers as a way to protect the health of addicts.

"Insite is just part of the continuum of heath treatment and health promotion for people who are addicted to drugs," Zanocco said.

While the health authority was reluctant to open a safe-injection site at first, people slowly came on board, she said.

"We started to look at the moral questions, the ethical questions, the financial implications of what [a safe injection site] might mean. It was something that gradually grew in acceptance," she said.

Zanocco said that no matter how much outreach they had in the community, there was a certain segment of addicts they weren't able to get to until Insite opened.

Vancouver police union president Tom Stamatakis said though he hasn't had time to review the decision in its entirety, he was disappointed. The department supports the safe-injection site but the police union does not. 

Stamatakis said there are many outstanding issues with the program, including that addicts may commit crimes to get the drugs they do at Insite.

The court decision will delay a more in-depth look at those issues, he said.

New Democrat Jenny Kwan, the MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, where Insite is located, has introduced a private member's bill that calls for the designation of safe injection sites as health facilities.

"This decision is a huge victory for people in our community, for people who are marginalized in the community, who are struggling day by day to survive, and this decision is the foundation on which I think we can build on," Kwan said.

"We can bring in legislation that will make permanent supervised injection facilities in British Columbia."

Drug addicts like smokers, alcoholics

In his ruling, Pitfield wrote that with substances such as alcohol and smoking, society doesn't condemn addicts but provides a range of health-care services to help manage the addiction, and he can't see why it should be different when it comes to dealing with addiction to harder drugs.

The ruling says denial of access to the site "amounts to a condemnation of the consumption that led to addiction in the first place, while ignoring the resulting illness."

"While there is nothing to be said in favour of the injection of controlled substances that leads to addiction, there is much to be said against denying addicts health-care services that will ameliorate the effects of their condition," he wrote.

With files from Canadian Press