The nine votes cast by the Supreme Court of Canada in favour of Insite, a safe-injection centre for drug addicts in Vancouver, constitute a victory for common sense over a mindless and arbitrary “war on drugs.”
Sometimes, it falls to the courts to use the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to shield a powerless group from arbitrary state action. Heroin and crack addicts have no political constituency. But their lives have value, too.
The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has often said it won’t intervene in the legitimate policy choices of government. And we have often urged the courts at all levels to let government choose. Why, then, was this a case to stand up to government? Why was Ottawa’s attempt to close Insite not a legitimate choice?
Because the federal government was fighting illegal drugs on the backs of the most desperately ill people in our society, in a way that was bound to kill many of them.
Insite does not give out drugs. It provides medical supervision and clean needles to addicts. And it saves the lives of sick people who might otherwise die from overdoses, according to evidence accepted by a unanimous Supreme Court. Since 2003, when Insite opened, 1,400 people have overdosed but, because of the interventions of medical staff, none has died. If the federal government is to order the removal of a lifesaving support from the desperately ill, it had better have strong evidence of some overriding purpose and benefit. It didn’t, said the court.
The government argued that the addicts’ own personal choices had led them down the road of addiction. The court’s response, written by Chief Justice McLachlin, deserves framing: “The ability to make some choices does not negate the trial judge’s findings that addiction is a disease in which the central feature is impaired control over the use of the addictive substance.”
The government also argued that allowing addicts to inject their drugs under medical supervision at Insite would have the effect of promoting drug use and therefore addiction. On the contrary, all the country’s news cameras should be invited down to show the horror of addiction. Eighty-seven per cent of drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are infected with Hepatitis C, and 17 per cent with HIV, 20 per cent are homeless, 80 per cent have been incarcerated, 38 per cent are in the sex trade. Is this a picture that promotes drug use?
It is almost forgotten what led to the creation of Insite. In 1997, a public emergency was declared in Vancouver after 200 addicts died in a single year from overdoses. Crime has not risen in the neighbourhood since Insite opened. Local police and the provincial government support the clinic. The court’s decision portends a day when the medical model of dealing with addictions will triumph over the discredited criminal model.