Watson's position on injection site 'ridiculous,' says former Vancouver mayor

The Vancouver politician who championed supervised injection sites in that city says Mayor Jim Watson should try to understand drug addicts before rejecting a plan that would keep more of them alive. 

“I just get annoyed at politicians who don’t go out into the field and talk to the participants and find out what’s really going on,” former Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen said in an interview with Postmedia. “You can’t always rely on reports from your staff.”

Watson attends hundreds of community events each year, but Sean LeBlanc, chair of the Drug Users Advocacy League of Ottawa, said the mayor has yet to accept one of his invitations. “We have invited Mr. Watson to several events over several different years. He has attended none of them,” said LeBlanc.

Watson is a longstanding opponent of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre’s plan to open a supervised injection site in downtown Ottawa. He has said tax money is better spent on drug treatment programs.

Owen said Watson’s position is “ridiculous” and perpetuates the notion that drug use is a crime rather than a health issue. “You’re not encouraging people to use drugs by opening a supervised injection site,” he argued. “You’re assisting people who need help.”

Owen, a three-term mayor, battled for years to bring a supervised injection site to Vancouver as part of a comprehensive approach to that city’s drug problem. Insite, the first facility of its kind in North America, opened in September 2003 thanks to the combined efforts of local, provincial and federal authorities.

Owen, a wealthy businessman and political moderate, was an unlikely ally in the campaign for a safe injection site. His eyes were opened, he said, after he began to meet addicts like Dean Wilson, then-president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

The mayor made frequent visits to the Downtown Eastside to talk to drug users, and he regularly invited them to private lunch meetings at city hall. He asked about their families, their living conditions, their drug habits.

He discovered drug users were people in crisis: “They were human beings that had terrible lives who got hooked on drugs, and now and then, had a desire to go clean.”

Based on evidence from Europe, where government-sanctioned injection sites had been in place for more than a decade, Owen came to believe they were an important part of a more enlightened approach to the city’s drug scourge.

At the time, in the 1990s, Vancouver was facing a rising tide of overdose deaths. A public health emergency was declared in September 1997 as rates of HIV and hepatitis C reached epidemic proportions in the Downtown Eastside.

Ultimately, Owen became so convinced of the value of a supervised injection site that he staked his political career on it.

“It was just the right thing to do,” said the 83-year-old Owen. “We had to show political leadership … These are citizens who have a right to public health. And if they have a desire for help, we should grab them by the hand and get them to a supervised injection site to make contact with counsellors, and start them on the right road.”

His support for the program ultimately cost Owen his job when his own party, the conservative Non-Partisan Association, nominated another candidate for mayor in 2002.

Owen said he regards Insite as one of his two most important accomplishments, alongside the redevelopment of Vancouver’s former Expo lands. “It has worked — and there’s proof that it has worked,” he said.

In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded as much in deciding that the former Conservative government’s attempt to shutter Insite was unconstitutional. “Insite has saved lives and improved health without increasing the incidence of drug use and crime in the surrounding area,” the high court said.

The court accepted research evidence that showed Insite had reduced local overdose deaths by more than one-third, while increasing the number of users going to treatment.

Former VANDU president Dean Wilson, who’s now clean after 40 years as an injection drug user, said Owen built the public support that proved critical to the site’s success. “He’s one politician who really helped us. He got it and he showed incredible fortitude,” Wilson told Postmedia. “I really feel blessed to know him.”

Wilson, 60, was the first person to use Vancouver’s supervised injection site; he later used the detox facility in the same building to finally beat his heroin addiction.

“The thing people have to know is that this is not having a can of beer on a Friday night with your buddies,” Wilson said. “This is a 24/7 horrible addiction — and nobody but nobody wants this life.”

By Andrew Duffy
Source:  Ottawa Citizen