Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Vancouver safe-injection site can operate until June under six-month extension

Vancouver safe-injection site can operate until June under six-month extension
1116 words
2 October 2007
The Canadian Press
(c) 2007 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

VANCOUVER _ Ottawa's six-month reprieve for Vancouver's safe injection site simply allows the government to shelve the issue until after a possible fall election, leaving a suffering community in limbo, supporters of the site said Tuesday.

Though they applauded the announcement from the federal government that Insite can remain open until next June, doctors, community activists and opposition politicians said they are frustrated that a health issue has become a political football.

Health Canada announced Tuesday it would extend the exemption from Canada's drug laws that allows Insite to operate. The exemption was set to run out at the end of the year.

``I think what this is an indication of is that the government is currently really trying to sit out the issue of Insite rather than making a decision one way or another that inevitably would offend a lot of people on one side or another,'' said Benedikt Fischer, director of the Illicit Drugs, Public Health and Policy Unit at the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.

``That problem is postponed but not resolved.''

The former storefront provides a place for addicts to safely inject themselves with their own heroin under the supervision of medical staff.

A spokeswoman for Health Canada said the exemption will allow further research.

``It's for the purposes of research into the impact of such sites on prevention, treatment and
crime,'' said Jirina Vlk, acting head of communications for the department.

Reams of research have been done on Insite since it opened in Vancouver's beleaguered Downtown Eastside in 2003.

The studies examining the centre have included results showing drug addicts who used the program were more likely to enrol in detox programs, more likely to start methadone replacement programs and reduce their number of monthly visits to shoot up.

In August, a group of 130 prominent doctors, scientists and public health professionals endorsed a commentary published in the journal Open Medicine that said the injection site was being judged by a different standard than other health measures.

``Harm reduction has now been shown to be effective _ Insite in particular _ on a variety of fronts and I think that the real issue is when are we going to finally agree to expand the role of Insite both in terms of the hours of operation and the number of people we can serve,'' Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, said Tuesday.
The centre has led many studies into the centre's work.

``The federal government at this time has taken the strategy, if you want, of giving us a piecemeal licence to operate and the latest effort, let's be clear, sounds a lot like a political effort to get this issue off the table in case an election be called. We cannot accept this kind of behaviour.''

When the site was approved in 2003, Vancouver officials applied for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which makes the use of heroin illegal.

The site was granted a three-year exemption for the purposes of a pilot study on the site's impact.

Federal Health Minister Tony Clement had announced in September 2006 the exemption would be extended until December of this year to allow for further study.

The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority had requested an extension for three and a half years.
Former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, now a Liberal senator, said he doesn't even believe the exemption is needed because he said it's unclear how the law would be enforced without the exemption.

``I realize that the Conservative government has a difficult time because they can't seem to find any substantiated evidence that would back their Neanderthal response,'' he said.

``The fact is that this is a health-care facility and it should be left open and expanded in many places across Canada.''

Clement also said in 2006 that a new National Drug Strategy would need to be in place before the government considered allowing any other supervised rejection sites to open in Canada.
The minister said in an interview with The Canadian Press last week that strategy is expected this week.

Mark Townsend, of the Portland Hotel Society which runs Insite, called Tuesday's announcement depressing and a distraction from the real problems facing addicts on the Downtown Eastside.

``We've got people that are sick, people that are dying, mentally ill people living in crummy hotels,'' said Townsend.

``There's loads to do and the supervised injection site is important but really they just need to accept that the evidence is in and they do the right thing.''

Back in April, Health Canada put out a request for proposals for further study connected with Insite, asking for input on health issues, public order and safety issues and similarities and differences between Vancouver and other Canadian cities.

Townsend said several noted researchers in the field declined to apply for the grants because of a gag order that would prohibit them from talking about their findings unless given approval from the government.

``The prime minister is out there trying to find a researcher that will tell him the world is flat, so he's got an excuse to cut it,'' Townsend said.

A Simon Fraser University criminologist who was told last week that he won one of the grants said his work will examine the impact of the site on crime in the Downtown Eastside.

``We're going to be doing interviews, detailed interviews, with a sample of police, residents, business owners in the vicinity and social service agencies,'' Prof. Neil Boyd said.

``We're also hoping to use police data, calls for service and arrest data, to determine whether there have been changes in activity over time at the site.''

His research will be submitted to the government in February.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan welcomed the government's announcement, which came on the same day that the city was considering a report on substitution treatment for people with drug addictions in the city.

The 34-page report looks at the use of opiate replacement drugs, like methadone, and also a North American study being carried out in part in Vancouver that prescribes legal opium to addicts.

The report also outlines five clinical trials the city would like to run in conjunction with the Inner Change Society and Chronic Addiction Substitution Treatment program announced earlier this year.

The report was approved by city council and the mayor plans to ask the federal government to fund the studies under the new National Drug Strategy

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