Keep Vancouver's Insite open, Supreme Court rules
The Harper government said Friday it is disappointed but will comply with a unanimous Supreme Court of Canada ruling which concluded that the government's attempt to shut down North America's only supervised injection site violates the Charter of Rights.
The judges said the government's 2008 move to deny a permit extension to Insite, in Vancouver's downtrodden Downtown Eastside, was "arbitrary," threatened to undermine health and safety, and was unconstitutional.
"Although we are disappointed with the Supreme Court of Canada decision today we comply," Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq told the House of Commons.
But she added that the government is still reviewing the court decision, and rejected New Democratic Party deputy leader Libby Davies' demand that the government "take off its ideological blinders" and support supervised injection sites. "We believe that the system should be focused on preventing people from becoming drug addicts," said Aglukkaq.
The ruling ordered an immediate exemption, with no deadline, allowing the facility to remain open. It also paves the way for similar sites to open in cities across Canada.
In Vancouver, a large crowd cheered, hugged and sang in front of Insite on Hastings Street, immediately following the top court's decision. Before it came, hundreds assembled in the early morning darkness, sipping coffee, often breaking into song, in anxious anticipation of the court's announcement.
All attention focused on a big screen, beaming a live feed of the court's judgement directly to the safe injection site. In the moments before the cheer erupted, the swollen crowd had spilled out onto Hastings Street, no room left on the packed sidewalk. Passing cars honked, recognizing that a celebration had erupted.
"We'd welcome Prime Minister Harper or any federal officials to come here," said Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer and VP, public health for Vancouver Coastal Health, following the announcement. "I'd be happy to sit down with them and show them the good work that we've done," she said.
Insite, which opened in 2003 under a special federal exemption under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act (CDSA), provides a place for addicts to inject drugs using sterile needles under a nurse's supervision.
But then-health minister Tony Clement moved in 2008 to refuse an extension of the exemption, leading to a legal challenge and two B.C. court rulings in favor of the provincial government's position that Insite should remain open.
Clement's decision "would have been to prevent injection drug users from accessing the health services offered by Insite, threatening the health and indeed the lives of the potential clients," the judges stated in a unanimous decision. That decision, therefore, violated the rights of Insite users under section seven of the charter, which protects the "life, liberty and security" of individual Canadians.
"It is arbitrary, undermining the very purposes of the CDSA, which include public health and safety," the judges ruled. "It is also grossly disproportionate: the 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."
The ruling, however, went against a 2010 B.C. Court of Appeal ruling which found that the federal government, which has exclusive jurisdiction over criminal law, didn't have the right to interfere in an area of provincial responsibility - health care.
They noted that a finding of B.C. having "interjurisdictional immunity" on the matter would mean that the federal government would also be powerless in areas such as abortion, human cloning and euthanasia.
The judges rejected the argument that a decision favourable to Insite, which was backed by the B.C. government, the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police, would open the "floodgates" across Canada.
The decision "is not a license for injection drug users to possess drugs wherever and whenever they wish. Nor is it an invitation for anyone who so chooses to open a facility for drug use under the banner of a 'safe injection facility,'" they wrote.
"The result in this case rests on the (2008 B.C. Supreme Court judge's) conclusion that Insite is effective in reducing the risk of death and disease and has no negative impact on the legitimate criminal law objectives of the federal government."
The fate of the supervised-injection site had been muddied ever since 2008, when the Conservative federal government refused to renew a Health Canada exemption that had permitted the facility to operate in contravention of criminal drug laws.
The Tories, including Clement, have said that the facility and similar "harm-reduction" programs divert money from addiction-treatment programs.
Mounds of research support the benefits of eight-year-old Insite. Research has shown the site reduces the number of drug-related deaths in the area, and research into supervised-injection sites show they contain the spread of HIV/AIDS, reduce public disorder in the surrounding areas and help addicts enter detox and other treatment programs.