Stephen Harper had his political noose tightened a notch by the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling last month allowing Vancouver’s supervised injection site, Insite, to keeps its doors open. Insite enables intravenous and illicit drug users to consume drugs safely under the supervision of medical professionals. And Victoria is already falling behind other major cities that have their gears in motion for injection sites of their own.
The landmark ruling upheld an exemption to a federal drug possession law that allows Insite to provide medical supervision, advice, supplies, detox options and counsel for users who bring in their own illegal substances. To refrain from providing this essential health service would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the court concluded.
The report, written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, states, “Insite saves lives. Its benefits have been proven. There has been no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada during its eight years of operation.”
Additional supervised injection sites are in the works for Montreal, Vancouver and Quebec City — all empowered by the Supreme Court ruling that slayed Prime Minister Harper’s third attempt to close Insite.
“It’s just not fair. It’s against human rights, when you’re just trying to survive,” says Katie Lacroix, board member of Victoria’s Beddow Center and SOLID (Society of Living Intravenous Drug Users). “People suffer from addictions. You wouldn’t look at someone who was mentally ill and put the same judgment on them as drug users receive.”
The question for Victorians ultimately is: where would a supervised injection site be located, and what are the major obstacles, considering the 2008 closure of the Cormorant Street needle exchange? It has been over four years since Victoria has seen services like this, and many feel there is a need for fresh innovation, compassion and energy to emerge from the streets.
That is exactly what The Beddow Center is doing. Along with SOLID, the Center has stepped forward to spearhead an initiative of a peer-run, supervised injection site for Victoria, despite opposition from business groups like the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) and the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
“Basically the DVBA is not in favour of an injection site,” says Ken Kelly, DVBA General Manager. “If there was to be an injection site, we would appreciate it being out of downtown.”
The DVBA has found that the closure of the Cormorant street needle exchange, and the relocation of the StreetLink Emergency Shelter to Rock Bay, has had positive and stabilizing effects on downtown Victoria. And they feel it has changed the overall perception of Victoria for the better.
“There is a need to have tranquility prevail,” says Kelly.
The Victoria Chamber of Commerce agrees.
“It’s not something that we’re in favour of,” says Bruce Carter, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce. “For every consumption in a supervised injection site there is an associated property crime.”
“The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce believes public funds are better invested in other forms of treatment, such as detoxification beds and withdrawal management programs and in increased enforcement,” they state in their organization policy.
However, Lacroix questions the perceptions people and organizations like the DBVA and the Chamber of Commerce hold of drug users.
“These people are not a plague of society; they are a product of society,” says Lacroix. “When you’re walking downtown, maybe talk to them instead of seeing them as a piece of trash in front of the store.”
City Councilor Philippe Lucas, who is also a researcher with the Centre for Addictions Research B.C., hopes to find a balance between the important service and community impact.
“One of the main challenges is how to address NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) around the proposal and how to manage the site effectively,” he says. “We need to make sure that we can mitigate any impact on the community that would be hosting this. But I think that the public is really supportive . . . Every day we don’t have a supervised injection site, we continue the transmission, unnecessarily of disease endangering our injection drug use population, and the general public.”
Mark Johnson, a Beddow Centre board member and SOLID rig digger (a person who collects, cleans up, searches for and disposes of discarded syringes) suggests the site would have a positive community impact. “SOLID has been offering a needle exchange service as well as picking up needles off the street and we’ve operated for a few years right across from the police station, and in the so called no-go zone running our services, without the community even noticing,” he says. “They didn’t even know we were here. And if we hadn’t have been doing that they would have been finding hundreds of needles around the neighborhood.”
While social stigma and political controversy shroud the debate around illicit drug use and the provision of medical services, the numbers are hard to ignore.
Insite has observed more than one million injections with no deaths and has intervened successfully in 1 400 overdoses. Since the service started there has been a 30 per cent increase in addicts entering detox programs A study published in The Lancet found that overdose deaths had declined by 35 per cent in the area of Insite’s clinic, with a nine per cent decrease city wide.
The Beddow Center is calling on the City of Victoria to provide property and to act as the landlords for a supervised peer-run injection site that the Center hopes to spearhead.
“It’s not so much the illicit drugs that people die from; it’s the lack of knowledge, on how to prevent infection; safe use and alternative options,” says Johnson.