– Vancouver’s supervised safe injection
site will remain open after Canada’s top court ruled that closing the facility
would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court of Canada
found the federal government must give Insite, the first such facility in North
America, an open-ended exemption from the country’s drug laws.
potential denial of health services and the correlative increase in the risk of
death and disease to injection drug users outweigh any benefit that might be
derived from maintaining an absolute prohibition on possession of illegal drugs
on Insite’s premises,” according to the court decision.
The federal government said it was disappointed with
the decision, but would comply.
“We believe the system should be focused on
preventing people from becoming drug addicts in the first place,” said health
minister Leona Algukkaq.
decision ends a long legal battle over whether federal attempts to close the
safe injection site infringes on the charter rights of addicts under section
seven: the right to life, liberty and security of the person.
The legal battle was prompted by the Conservative government’s
decision to end in 2008 the exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances
Act that Insite enjoyed.
exemption protected Insite staff and drug users from being arrested while using
or supervising the use of illicit drugs.
The Supreme Court has now ruled the Minister’s refusal to renew the exemption
threatens the health and lives of drug users and must be reversed indefinitely.
“Insite saves lives. Its benefits have been proven.
There has been no discernable negative impact on public safety and health
objectives of Canada during its eight years of operation,” according to the
Supporters “ecstatic” about ruling
“I’m ecstatic. This has been a long time coming,”
said Dean Wilson, one of the plaintiffs involved in the case and the first
person to ever use Insite. “A lot of people have lost their lives for this.”
Wilson has been fighting battles over a safe
injection site in Vancouver for 14 years and he says Friday’s decision proves
he was right.
“Even if they had not agreed with me today, every year eight
people are alive because of that place.”
Members of the Downtown Eastside gathered in the wee
hours of the morning to hear the decision, erupting in cheers when they heard
the site would stay open.
“I think people will know it is their victory,” said
Libby Davies, an NDP MP for Vancouver, who was in Ottawa Friday.
Davies represents the riding and has a long history
working with the community to address is unique problems with homelessness,
addictions and mental health.
“I think with the decision today (the
Conservatives)have a moment and an opportunity to reflect on what this decision
really means and to understand when a decision is shown to work locally, when
it has such broad support …that they should not be a barrier,” Davies said.
Insite has paved the legal road for
future safe injection sites in Canadian communities, but Wilson, a
heroin addict who has been clean for two years, says facilities should only be
opened when it makes sense.
“I’m not advocating them being popped up any old where,” he said. “But I don’t
think ideology should prevent it.”
Wilson says the city, local police and health care workers all need to be
onside before a place like Insite can work.
The court said it’s clear the ruling was
limited in its scope, writing the decision “is not a license for injection drug
users to possess drugs wherever and whenever they wish. Nor is it an invitation
for any who so choose to open a facility for drug use under the banner of a
‘safe injection facility.’”
“The court was very clear. If there is a clearly
beneficial treatment that saves lives and there is a negative impact on public
safety then the feds should grant an exemption,” said John Haggie, president of
the Canadian Medical Association.
Haggie says the wisdom of opening future safe
injection depends on need and local circumstances.
Health, not crime at Insite’s heart says community
“Addition is a health issue, not a criminal issue.
Research, and now the law confirms our position that safe injection sites such
as Insite perform an important health care role in the lives of people living
with chronic addition-related problems,” said Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson
in a statement.
Since opening, Insite has received support from
Robertson, its community, the provincial government, former mayors and the
opened its doors in 2003 in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of
Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods. After seeing rates of overdose deaths and drug
use skyrocket for years, the city was desperate to find a solution.
Insite, supporters argue, is part of that
Twenty per cent of the population is homeless and 4,600 intravenous drug users
call the area home. The annual number of fatal drug overdoses jumped to 200 in
1993 from 16 in 1987.
A study released earlier this year and published in the prominent medical
journal The Lancet found that fatalities from drug overdoses have dropped 35
“It is a harm reduction strategy that has worked,”
said Haggie of the CMA. “There were people dying on the streets of Vancouver
and something needed to be done about it.”
is a legitimate health care service,” says Liz Evans, executive director
of the Portland Hotel Society, one of the case’s plaintiffs. “We hope now we
can all move forward towards comprehensive, made-in-Canada, drug policy that is
includes detox, treatment and initiatives like Insite.”
The Canadian Public Health Association also stands behind the decision, saying
this program is essential in addressing the health needs of drug users.
“Addiction-related drug use is a health issue and not a criminal justice
issue,” said Debra Lynkowski, CPHA’s CEO. “This decision is an important step
in promoting and protecting both individual rights to life, liberty and
security of the person and the health and security of the broader public.”
Courts fails to rule on matter of jurisdiction
The case also set the stage for a
jurisdictional battle over whether the provincial provision of health care
preempted the federal government’s control over the Criminal Code.
When issues of conflicting jurisdictions
have come before the courts in the past, the ruling almost always favour the
The Supreme Court ruled that neither
party were able to effectively argue they had exclusive jurisdiction over
Insite and that it is “impossible to precisely define what falls in or out of
the proposed provincial ‘core.’”
A survey of 1,000 drug users in the
Downtown Eastside shows:
51 per cent use heroin
32 per cent use cocaine
87 per cent are infected
with Hepatitis C
17 per cent have HIV
80 per cent have been
38 per cent were or have
been involved in the sex trade
59 per cent had nonfatal