Thursday, September 07, 2006

More updates

This one from the National Post:

Addicts are not criminals

Adam Radwanski, National PostPublished: Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Almost all of the arguments against Insite, Vancouver's groundbreaking "safe injection" facility for heroin addicts, crumble under the weight of modest scrutiny. It has not, as critics predicted it would, prompted a spike in the local crime rate. It does not discourage junkies from seeking rehabilitation; on the contrary, it has given thousands of referrals to help them try to kick the habit. And contrary to the claims of some of its more confused critics, it most certainly does not turn the government into a supplier of illegal narcotics.

But as the federal government continues to deliberate over its future, having granted it a temporary reprieve until the end of next year, there is one legitimate strike against Insite: the blatant hypocrisy of effectively legalizing possession of heroin at a single, government-sanctioned facility, while arresting addicts for exactly the same offence elsewhere.

"So long as the drug laws remain on the books, the government cannot simply do as it likes, selectively enforcing prohibitions here while openly ignoring them there," Marni Soupcoff wrote in these pages last year. "At least not without a price." That price, she argued, is the authorities encouraging a disrespect for all laws by itself flouting the ones that it finds inconvenient.

That is a valid argument - so valid, in fact, that it should probably rule out more ventures like Insite. It's probably also the reason that, even as Vancouver police's support for the program has pointed to its effectiveness, the Canadian Police Association has taken a strong stance against it. But the answer is not to slowly kill off the safe-injection site, as the current federal government would seemingly prefer, and go back to treating all junkies like criminals. The answer is to stop treating any of them like criminals.

Decriminalizing or legalizing possession of hard drugs is not a decision to be taken lightly. We're not talking about marijuana, a substance that should be legalized because it does little harm to anyone. But it's explicitly because of the harm it currently does users that we need to reform our approach to heroin.

Study after study tells us that we can't force junkies to clean up; they have to be willing and able to do so themselves. In those cases, the best we can do is harm reduction. And that means pulling them out from underground - from flophouses with dirty shared needles, and back alleys where there's no one to help them when they overdose -- and into places like Insite.

The numbers from that one facility alone suggest it has already saved its share of lives. While too early to know just how many AIDS/HIV infections it's prevented, an RCMP report found that it's helped addicts learn how to inject themselves more safely and to prevent overdoses. For those who have overdoses while at the facility -- 453 of them over a two-year period in which it averaged 607 visits daily -- Insite has had the wherewithal to ensure that not a single one of them died. And the New England Journal of Medicine has reported that users who go there are more likely to go into rehab -- analysis born out by the 4,083 referrals handed out by Insite over that same two-year period, 40% of which were for addiction counselling.

If every city had its own version of Insite -- or ideally, several versions of Insite -- fewer Canadians would be killing themselves with drugs. It's that simple. But those services shouldn't be provided by government in a vacuum, while anyone else who tries to help gets busted. If there's to be an expansion, the work should be done mostly by the independent not-for-profits that already provide other social services.

None of this need get in the way of fighting the drug trade -- going after dealers and the networks that supply them. If anything, it could free up resources to go after them more effectively. But it's time to start treating their customers more as victims than perpetrators.

Yes, addicts are more likely to commit crimes -- stealing to pay for their drugs, or behaving anti-socially once they've taken them -- than the rest of us. But that means cracking down on them once they've committed those offences, not because they might do so at some point. In the meanwhile, we should be helping them deal with their sickness rather than arresting them for it.

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