Insite’s success causes problems for morality-based opposition
Before the Supreme Court case to decide Insite’s future began, government lawyers requested that the court ignore the piles of evidence that suggest the inexplicably embattled facility does exactly what it purports to do: reduce overdoses, stop the spread of disease, encourage rehabilitation - you know, generally just save lives.
A day into the proceedings, we quickly learned why the government’s lawyers would make such a request: They had no way to respond. Justice Louis LeBel stated it outright to government lawyer Paul Riley: “In the end, this program somehow, while not being perfect, works. Have you got anything that tends to demonstrate that this program doesn’t work?” Riley’s only reply? “I think that’s a fair observation.”
Which brings us back to the question of why this trial is taking place at all. Since it refused to grant an extension to Insite’s exemption three years ago, the government has had plenty of time to back up its moralistic bleating with any kind of practical argument to support its position. That they’ve evidently decided to go with furrowed brows and grade-school reminders that drugs are bad - in the highest court of the land, by the way - suggests that they’re in the wrong on this one.
It is no surprise that a harm-reduction facility such as Insite would be controversial, and worthy of a public discussion. The fact is that it is providing government-funded care and compassion to a section of society that, even if they are now in the grips of a disease, have made some obviously bad choices somewhere along the line. I personally think that the Insite harm-reduction model represents enlightened policy; but I can understand the argument that these people should be left to sleep in the bed they made, even if it’s in an alley next to a dirty needle.
But it’s also a mistake to assume — as Barbara Kay does — that “compassion” is Insite’s reason for being, let alone its sole purpose.
Insite, and harm reduction more generally, is about pragmatically dealing with some of society’s unfortunate realities. Despite the fact that society has rightly deemed some substances too dangerous to condone, people use them, and so far no amount of law enforcement, family encouragement or other external pressure has eliminated that reality.
It is obvious that the ultimate goal of any drug program should be the elimination of its use: That’s why Insite has a drug-rehabilitation clinic onsite (it’s even conveniently called OnSite) that admitted 458 people last year, and made 5,268 referrals of its 12,236 unique visitors to social and health services, most for detox and addiction treatment. While we wait for the others to clean up, though, it is just good sense to try and minimize the harm they’re doing to themselves and others.
Because, make no mistake, Insite helps the rest of us as much as it does the addicts who come through its doors. Besides the widely reported 35% drop in overdoses in its vicinity, Insite has also been shown to reduce HIV transmission, by as many as 35 cases a year, which is no small savings to our health-care system: The International Journal of Drug Policy finds that, once you factor in Insite’s whopping $3-million yearly operating budget, the cost-benefit ratio in just this instance is 1 to 5.12. Factor in the people who Insite has referred to long-term rehabilitation — people who, for the most part, either lack the money or the good example to get there on their own — and the ratio no doubt improves.
No study has found that Insite encourages drug use: Presumably, a room full of junkies desperately seeking a hit isn’t exactly an inspirational poster. But it’s reasonable to worry that an expanded mandate might change that. That’s a worthwhile discussion to have, at least. On the other hand, clinging to a misguided morality and stubbornly challenging Insite’s right to exist, after it has proven again and again since its 2003 founding that it works, is not.
Any walk around Insite’s Downtown Eastside Vancouver location will show you the ill effects of drug use: They can wreck lives as easily as communities. But we can’t forget that it’s those ill effects, and not drug use intrinsically, that is the reason for society’s stand against them. It is worthless to remain high-minded when that position only helps exacerbate the problems we’re supposed to be against. At some point, we have to look beyond our noses, not just down them.