The Canadian government has the right to set the ground rules for any medical clinics that supervise the injection of illegal drugs. But in doing so, it must not allow sick people to die on specious grounds related to the “war on drugs,” the Supreme Court says.
With a new law introduced Thursday – the opportunistically-named Respect for Communities Act – Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq leaves one to wonder whether she could give a fair-minded consideration to any proposal for such a clinic.
Ms. Aglukkaq helpfully includes, in her backgrounder on the bill, a link to the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that blasted her government for its mindless rejection of Insite, the country’s first such clinic, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. But her bill makes one question whether the government has truly accepted the court’s ruling.
Here is what the court said about the possibility of future clinics: “Where, as here, a supervised injection site will decrease the risk of death and disease, and there is little or no evidence that it will have a negative impact on public safety, the Minister should generally grant an exemption.”
Not one of the seven paragraphs in the bill’s preamble makes specific reference to the lifesaving purpose of a supervised injection clinic. Similarly, a section on “principles” mentions nothing about saving lives. It regresses to the view rejected by the Supreme Court – that dying by overdose is the addict’s choice. “The risks of overdose are inherent to the use of certain illicit substances,” says one of the bill’s principles.
The bill is a series of hoops that any clinic would need to leap through, such as demonstrating what impact such a clinic would have on neighbourhood crime and nuisance. “Our Government believes that creating a location for sanctioned use of drugs obtained from illicit sources has the potential for great harm in a community,” Ms. Aglukkaq says in a news release.
She is right that illegal drugs do great harm to communities and individuals, and it is legitimate to be concerned that they not be imposed on communities where they would be a poor fit. These clinics are a last line of defence and, as the law says, belong only in exceptional circumstances.
The Vancouver clinic protected the Downtown Eastside from harm. Before it opened, it was common to see users shooting up in the streets; 200 people died from overdoses in 1993 alone; and dirty, discarded needles were to be found everywhere. Police, the mayor, the board of health – all say Insite has made their community safer and healthier.
It would be wrong if the government’s continued embrace of war-on-drugs thinking were to pre-empt creative approaches to reducing the harms wrought by illegal drug use.