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Registered nurse Sammy Mullally holds a tray of supplies to be used by a drug addict at the Insite safe-injection clinic in Vancouver on May 11, 2011. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
Registered nurse Sammy Mullally holds a tray of supplies to be used by a drug addict at the Insite safe-injection clinic in Vancouver on May 11, 2011. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Globe Editorial

The demilitarized drug-war zone Add to ...

As debate about the failure of the drug war gains momentum, nobody is expecting a sudden ceasefire between cartels and police. It is far too complex and diffuse a problem. Instead, small battles will be won city by city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. One striking success is Vancouver’s InSite program, North America’s only supervised-injection site.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to close the clinic, and would have if the Supreme Court of Canada hadn’t intervened. The court approved the clinic because of the specific conditions that gave rise to it, including the concentration of drug addicts in the impoverished Downtown Eastside neighbourhood and the high rates of disease and overdose.

Health authorities and politicians in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal should consider establishing similar clinics for addicts in their cities. A team of University of Toronto researchers concluded in a recent report that three supervised-injection facilities in Toronto and two in Ottawa would prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, save money and reduce the sharing of needles.

That doesn’t mean that prevention and enforcement are not still crucial elements. But treating addicts as people, and not as criminals, can also accomplish the goals of reducing drug use, drug crime and drug harm. InSite does not provide drugs, but gives addicts a safe place and sterile needles to inject them.

Since the clinic opened in 2003, 1,400 people have overdosed, but because of the interventions of medical staff, none has died. The clinic has also helped curb the spread of infectious disease. Crime rates and drug use have not increased. Local police and the provincial government support the clinic. This is not the case in Toronto and Ottawa, where negative stereotypes of addicts persist.

They should look to InSite as a model that shows that treating drug addicts, not imprisoning them, can save money and lives.

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