Evidence-based government? Let's open supervised injection sites

Safe injection sites save lives. Five small words, an indisputable truth. But Mayor Jim Watson won’t see one on city streets in Ottawa, nor will police Chief Charles Bordeleau.

Under current federal law, the process to get an exemption under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act — needed to open a place where people are going to shoot up — requires consultation with mayors, local politicians and police. There’s that, and a whole slew of other conditions that make it practically impossible to open a supervised injection site.

It’s time for that to change.

Last week, Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott was in Vancouver for a meeting with provincial health ministers, and she said she was moved by a visit to Insite, the safe injection site in the city’s desperately impoverished downtown eastside. Good. She should be moved. But she should also move quickly to amend legislation, making it easier to open safe injection sites.

Given that some powerful local figures oppose them, it’s going to require proper leadership from the federal government to look out for the most desperate in Canadian cities. It is, it must be said, to Ottawa’s shame that we can’t all get our act together to help drug users.

Back in 2013, the Tories introduced the oddly named Respect for Communities Act, designed to guide groups through the process of applying for the exemptions that allowed them to open safe injection sites. Just last June, the bill finally received royal assent. The catch, of course, was that the process was so onerous as to make it more or less a non-starter.

But the previous government, for all its tough on crime invective and support from some police forces, was pretty much wrong about supervised injection sites. So are the people who oppose them now.

“Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada,” wrote the Supreme Court of Canada in 2011.

Supervised injection sites do good work. At Insite, of the roughly 1,400 overdoses between 2004 and 2010, none were fatal. Thousands of people have been diverted to social services. Moreover, research shows significant health care savings thanks to supervised injection sites (which, incidentally, would cover the cost of operating two Ottawa clinics). These are all time-worn arguments. So why the opposition?

Part of it is cruelty. Drug users are marginalized, often poor, and it’s pretty easy for politicos to ignore them. It might even be politically advantageous to do so. Part of it is ignorance — believing, for example, that addiction is a criminal issue and not a health one. Part of it is philosophical, believing it’s wrong to even be complicit in drug use.

There are challenges in the city of Ottawa to actually getting one – where would it go? What about public consultation? Residents will be understandably — if perhaps not justifiably — worried about drug users in their neighbourhoods.

None of that really matters when it comes to saving lives. But the government surely knows that repealing legislation that’s keeping safe injection sites from city streets isn’t going to sit well with some voters. Moreover, it is pretty much guaranteed to give needed ammunition to the opposition Conservatives.

But, eventually, one has to circle back to the facts, which are incontrovertible.

The government has said it will be an evidence-based government. It’s ethically right to help disadvantaged people and prevent people from dying. Supervised injection sites are a way to do that, and it’s based in sound science.

All that’s needed now is for someone to step up and do something about it. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals could do it. And they should.

By Tyler Dawson
Source: Ottawa Citizen