Insite ruling critical issue for prison populations
Drug addicts in Vancouver's downtown east side now have the protection of the Supreme Court of Canada to avail themselves of a medical facility, the Insite clinic, where they may inject themselves with heroin under medical supervision.
Now: What about drug addicts in the country's prisons? Can they expect the court's ruling to change the way they are treated?
This is no academic question but one the members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and Security may soon be asked.
On Tuesday, at a meeting of that committee, Catherine Latimer, a lawyer and the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, suggested that the court's landmark and controversial ruling should have an impact as that committee looks at the issue of drug and alcohol use in our prisons.
Latimer said after the meeting she is not advocating so-called "shooting galleries" on every cell block in Canada's jails.
But she did say the Supreme Court's Insite ruling could have important implications for the prison population.
"One, it identifies addiction as a type of illness and as soon as something is identified as an illness, it's treated a little bit differently and, secondly, it raises a whole lot of questions how (ministerial) discretion has been exercised in denying harm-reduction opportunities to other people who are governed by federal legislation such as inmates."
Some prisons now offer "bleach kits" to inmates who are intravenous drug users to help stanch the spread of disease. Would a prison needle exchange program be another harm-reduction measure?
This is precisely the kind of program the Canadian HIV/ AIDS Legal Network pushed for last year, noting that similar programs work in Europe and Asia. But as Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner noted, needles can be pretty effective weapons and, surely, we would want to keep needles away from prisoners.
And yet, the Supreme Court's Insite ruling has clearly forced policy makers in Ottawa and in every provincial capital to do some new thinking on this controversial issue.
The good news, so far as drug use in prisons goes, is that the rate of use appears to be dropping. That said, drug use continues to pose a threat not only to the safety of drug users themselves but also the wider safety and security of the prison population and prison guards.
Conservative MPs on the security committee appear to prefer tackling the drug problem in prisons by focusing on measures that reduce the supply. That might involve more strict interdiction measures, more guards, and more punishment.
Randall Garrison, a BC NDP MP who taught criminal justice issues at college, said the government will soon reach a point of diminishing returns by implementing more costly programs to cut the supply of drugs. Better yet, the NDP says, would be increasing measures to reduce demand.
This brings us back to the John Howard Society and its call for a broad-based approach that encompasses treatment and harm reduction. Turn addicts into ex-addicts, in their view, and you're beating the drug problem.
The Insite ruling, to the discomfit, I suspect, of many small-c conservatives, now tips the scales to those who advocate that supervised, safe use of dangerous drugs is an important and useful part of the process of creating those ex-addicts.