Vancouver mayor won’t lobby for more drug injection sites
Mayor Gregor Robertson will not lead a charge to get more drug injection sites open in the city despite his belief three years ago that more facilities were needed in Vancouver.
Robertson said during his bid to become mayor in 2008 that “there is a place for more injection sites” in Vancouver. He made the statement in an October 2008 debate at the Vancouver Public Library.
Three years later, Robertson said he still believes in the benefits of injection sites such as Insite on East Hastings, which won a major victory Sept. 30 after the Supreme Court of Canada allowed the facility to remain open indefinitely.
But the mayor, who is seeking re-election in November, made it clear last week that he won’t lead a charge like his predecessors Philip Owen and Larry Campbell to get more sites open in the city.
“The city’s not going to initiate more sites,” Robertson told reporters outside his office at city hall after news broke of the court’s decision on Insite. “I will support more injection facilities if the health authority brings that forward as a priority and they demonstrate the need for it in the community.”
Supporters of the so-called harm reduction model that advocates providing a legal facility to inject illegal drugs have said for several years that more sites are needed in the city.
With up to 800 injections per opening at Insite, which operates from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m., the popularity of the facility is evident, according to Dr. Thomas Kerr, a research scientist with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
“We’ve conducted research on why people don’t use [Insite] when they want to,” said Kerr amid the celebration at Insite last Friday. “The number one reason is the wait time is too long. The other common reason is that it’s too far.”
Vancouver Coastal Health statistics indicate there are 14,000 intravenous drug users in the city. Insite, which opened in September 2003, has 12 injection booths and is the only legal facility of its kind in North America.
Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said more injection facilities in the city wouldn’t necessarily have to be stand-alone sites such as Insite. She noted the example of needle exchanges, which are now available at health clinics.
“I would like to have the discussion about incorporating these harm reduction practices into the services we offer,” she told reporters gathered at Insite. “There are health care facilities that provide services for clients who suffer from addictions. This could be an added treatment option for those clients in those settings in the same way we’ve incorporated needle exchanges.”
Vancouver Coastal Health operates Insite in conjunction with the PHS Community Services Society, which also manages several single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside.
As the Courier reported in November 2009, the nonprofit society had drawn up plans for a second injection site in a building in the Downtown Eastside.
The facility would feature 14 injection booths, an inhalation room for crack cocaine smokers and space to administer prescription drugs. The PHS declined to reveal the location.
Liz Evans, executive director of the PHS, announced the court’s ruling regarding Insite to a large crowd gathered in and outside the facility early Friday morning.
“I just think today means that we can start looking at expanding treatment options for people and, for me, that’s an incredible signal,” she told the Courier. “So we’ll have to look at what the ruling means in terms of opening other sites.”
The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision came after a lengthy court battle that began in the lower courts in B.C. The court ruled that not allowing the facility to operate under an exemption from Canada’s drug laws would violate users’ Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government appealed the lower court rulings, said publicly that although disappointed with the decision, his government would comply with the ruling.