Vancouver’s Downtown East Side is Canada’s ground zero in the plague of injection drug addiction. Its rates of substance abuse have led to catastrophic incidences of HIV infection, crime, and morbidity. And over the past decade, all three levels of government have poured one-and-a-half billion dollars into those ten square kilometres in an effort to stanch the bleeding.
The most controversial initiative of all has been Insite, a clinic providing addiction treatment, medical attention, and mental health counselling. It is able to bring addicts off the streets and into the health care system, because it provides a medically-supervised environment where they may inject themselves with cocaine, heroin, and morphine.
I empathise with the revulsion many Canadians feel at the use of public facilities to shelter drug use. I sympathise with the anger many diabetics nurse when they must purchase needles that would be gifted to them if they were injecting opiates instead of insulin. And I share the anxieties many parents harbour that the state is offering their children mixed messages on the probity of narcotics.
But the efforts by the current federal government to place emotion above reason and shut down Insite are unworthy of our country’s better traditions and higher responsibilities.
The overwhelming conclusion of scientific study is that Insite and other harm reduction programmes reduce addiction, decrease overdose deaths, curb the spread of disease, and diminish drug-related violence.
The federal campaign to shutter these programmes is little more than an effort to purchase easy political popularity at the expense of a wretched and unpopular segment of society.
I grew up in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, when it was most beset by drug abuse and its companion crimes. It is a storied community, with an architectural heritage that speaks of easier times, and a local culture of defiant pride born of having weathered the storms since.
One warm summer afternoon, walking home from middle school, I literally tripped over the corpse of a young woman, protruding from sacks of roadside garbage. It was a grotesque but hardly unique sight. She was riddled with needle tracks, and in her final moments of life, her body had tried to evacuate its poisons by expelling all of its fluids. A final rictus of terror remained carved on her face.
Even as a child, I understood that she had died alone, in agony, stripped of all dignity, and left to rot in the sun with the trash. But she wasn’t trash. She was someone’s daughter; she had been someone’s little girl. And howsoever she had lived her life, she didn’t deserve to die like that.
Years later, I volunteered as president of the Parkdale Community Health Centre, whose mandate included addiction treatment. I saw first-hand the disgust, anger, and fear that harm reduction programmes provoke. But I also saw that these programmes provide the only thread of hope for too many of our neighbours trapped in the abyss of addiction.
As a civilised nation, we can not place our personal discomfort with the idea of safe injection sites ahead of the hard reality that they save lives.
The federal government has announced that – despite consistent rebuffs from the courts and in defiance of pleas from the Canadian Medical Association – it intends to pursue its efforts to close Insite all the way to the Supreme Court.
The government’s decision is wrong medically, it is wrong morally, and it will judged to be wrong legally.
Because if that woman’s death wouldn’t be acceptable for my child, it shouldn’t have to acceptable for anyone’s child.