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A kit of supplies, including syringes, adhesive bandages and antiseptic pads, waits to be used by a drug addict inside Insite in Vancouver, August 23, 2006 (Andy Clark/ Reuters/Andy Clark/ Reuters)
A kit of supplies, including syringes, adhesive bandages and antiseptic pads, waits to be used by a drug addict inside Insite in Vancouver, August 23, 2006 (Andy Clark/ Reuters/Andy Clark/ Reuters)

Former mayors speak out for Insite Add to ...

Divided by politics but united by drug policy, five former Vancouver mayors have issued a last-minute plea to Ottawa to drop its appeal of earlier court decisions approving Insite, the city's supervised drug injection site.

"Since opening in 2003, Insite has proven - beyond a doubt - its worth to our community," the five ex-mayors say in an open letter issued on Tuesday to the federal Conservative government.

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In addition to Gregor Robertson, the current mayor, the letter was signed by former mayors Sam Sullivan, Larry Campbell, Philip Owen, Mike Harcourt and Art Phillips.

The list of mayors, stretching back to the 1970s, omits only Jack Volrich, who died last year, and former premier Gordon Campbell, who could not be contacted by letter organizers.

Mr. Sullivan is a Conservative, Mr. Robertson and Mr. Harcourt have supported the NDP, while Mr. Campbell, Mr. Owen and Mr. Phillips have backed the federal Liberals.

"In Vancouver, Insite is not really an issue," Mr. Sullivan said when asked to explain the coming together of mayors with such differing political tendencies. "It always surprises me in the rest of the country that this is something they still talk and argue about."

The mayors' letter was released two days before the Supreme Court of Canada is due to hear Ottawa's appeal of British Columbia court rulings declaring Insite a provincial health facility and thus immune from illicit-drug laws.

"It's an opportunity for the new majority government to listen to good science and local leadership on an important issue that affects the lives of the people of Vancouver," Mr. Robertson said. "We wanted to make one last try at the buzzer."

The letter refers to numerous studies showing that Insite has not had an overdose fatality since it opened in 2003, that users engage in less frequently in high-risk behaviour leading to transmission of the AIDS virus, and that public disorder has been reduced in nearby areas.

Insite also reports increased willingness among its clients to enter addiction treatment and detox programs.

"It's been improving life in the Downtown Eastside from Day One," Mr. Robertson said. "We, as mayor and former mayors, all recognize that."

The open letter calls access to Insite, where addicts inject drugs under supervision of trained medical staff, literally a matter of life and death for many users. "We urge the federal government to reconsider its legal efforts to close this vital health service."

Mr. Sullivan, mayor from 2005 to 2008, blamed former federal health minister Tony Clement for Conservative intransigence on the issue.

He said that while he was mayor he lobbied almost every minister in the Tory cabinet. "And very few of them had any problems with [Insite] I think [the government's position]has a lot to do with Tony Clement's personal approach. It was his own file."

In a 2008 speech to the Canadian Medical Association, Mr. Clement condemned health professions who support Insite as unethical and immoral.

He said that providing drug addicts with a supervised place to inject was akin to offering palliative care to patients with treatable forms of cancer.

A spokeswoman for federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq indicated the government will proceed with its appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada, despite the mayors' open letter.

"We must defend the government's ability to [regulate highly addictive dangerous drugs]for the safety of Canadians," media relations officer Jenny Van Alstyne said in an e-mail response.

"Our law-and-order agenda remains a priority of this government, and we will continue cracking down on gangs and organized crime so that our children are safe."

Ms. Van Alstyne's response drew a scathing retort from Mr. Sullivan.

"In fact, [drug crackdowns have not]kept our children safe," said the former mayor, a strong proponent of a more liberal drug policy.

"And I would love the government to regulate drugs, rather than allow criminals to regulate them. Let's get the government involved in regulation and crack down on the profits made by the drug dealers."

Kevin Quinlan, executive assistant to Mr. Robertson, said efforts to contact Mr. Campbell were unsuccessful.

"He didn't say 'yes' or 'no' to signing the letter. We just didn't hear back from him. I think he's on holidays," Mr. Quinlan said.

Insite opened while Mr. Campbell was premier and his government strongly supported the facility. He has kept out of the public eye since his replacement, Christy Clark, took over the reins of power.

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