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Nicole Henry injects morphine he bought on the street at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday April 18, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Nicole Henry injects morphine he bought on the street at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday April 18, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Supervised injection for the sake of public health Add to ...

Vancouver's supervised drug-injection clinic, Insite, saves lives and prevents human misery. Providing addicts with a safe, sterile place to inject heroin and other drugs is a pragmatic and effective way to curb the spread of infectious disease, including HIV/AIDs and hepatitis B and C, and to reduce substance abuse and overdoses.

Yet the federal government persists in opposing it, viewing Insite not as a critical component of British Columbia's health-based approach to treating addiction, but as a stark violation of criminal law.

This Thursday, when the Supreme Court of Canada hears the case, it will weigh these opposing arguments and rule on the jurisdictional dispute between B.C. and Ottawa, ultimately deciding the fate of the clinic. The province's responsibility for health care must take precedence over the Harper government's prohibitionist inclinations.

The fact is, this clinic has been operating under an exemption to Canada's drug laws dating back to 2003. A study, published last month in the British medical journal The Lancet, found that since the site opened the number of overdose deaths in the immediate area has declined by 35 per cent. This study, by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, confirms the findings of more than a dozen others that outline undisputed public-health benefits from the clinic, located in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, an impoverished area with near-epidemic levels of disease.

Were the court to side with the federal government, the consequences would be terrible. More addicts would overdose; fewer would participate in detox programs; HIV and hepatitis transmission rates would increase.

Narcotics addiction is a physiological condition. Providing addicts with sterile needles, as well as counselling that may lead to rehabilitation, saves the health-care system money. It also reduces harm, resulting in fewer medical complications and fewer fatal and non-fatal overdoses, which require police, ambulance and hospital care.

The existence of this clinic does not negatively impact on federal narcotics control efforts. Insite is a legitimate response to a public-health crisis. Other cities such as Victoria and Toronto are contemplating opening supervised-injection clinics. They prevent addicts from going into dark alleys to inject, harming themselves and others. Insite protects the health of B.C.'s public, and should remain open.

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