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A drug user prepares to inject morphine he bought on the street at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
A drug user prepares to inject morphine he bought on the street at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Patrick Brethour

It's time to inject some Insite into this campaign Add to ...

For all the thunderous warnings about Stephen Harper's hidden agenda, there has been remarkably little talk in this election about one of the few real examples of Conservative social conservatism - namely, the party's stunningly steadfast opposition to the Insite supervised injection facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

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The Conservative objections to Insite have a kernel of common sense: Simply helping intravenous drug users to more easily and safely inject themselves with poison is not a sufficient solution to the scourge of drug addiction.

Insite, however, is only one part of a larger approach to reducing illicit drug use. And in any case, the Conservatives go much, much further in their ideological opposition. Former health minister Tony Clement, so often at the epicentre of Conservative missteps, called into question the ethics of medical professionals who oversee supervised injections, and then claimed for good measure that supervised injection of addicts is akin to deliberately allowing a cancer patient to die.

The Conservative government would like to shut down Insite, and will argue the case for doing so in front of the Supreme Court, just 10 days after the election.

That alone should be enough to merit serious debate in this campaign, particularly since the Insite issue gives the Liberals and NDP a chance to expound on a favourite line of attack on Mr. Harper and his Conservatives - their unnerving propensity to bend facts to their opinions.

More inconvenient facts emerged Monday, with a new study published online in the medical journal, The Lancet, showing a marked decline in overdose deaths in the immediate vicinity of Insite.

Sure, there are minor quibbles to be had with those conclusions, since they come from an observational study, not a clinical trial. That makes it more difficult to definitively ascertain that Insite alone is responsible for the drop in deaths. And the headline number on falling rates is in part a function of a rising population in the DTES. Still, two things are crystal clear. The study was rigorously peer reviewed. And close to two dozen people are alive today, with Insite playing a key role in their survival.

Oh, there is one other thing: The Conservatives, citing moral turpitude, would shut the whole thing down.

A progressive politician could scarcely hope for a better cudgel with which to batter the Tories, but the Liberals and NDP have been surprisingly muted on the subject, at least during this campaign.

One reason could be the suspicion that a vigorous defence of Insite, however merited, might not play that well with swing voters in tight ridings, such as Vancouver South. The Conservatives have portrayed their stance on Insite as a law-and-order issue. Presumably, the Liberals and NDP wish to avoid any hug-a-thug counteroffensives from the Tories.

Rather than so precise an attack, the Liberals have resorted to warnings, as vague as they are ominous, about Mr. Harper's supposed plans to slash health-care funding to balance the federal budget.

Here's a thought. Why not use a real-life example of how the Harper government's ideological stance is interfering with health care? Why not commit to significant new expenditures for detox beds in Vancouver and across the country, and then dare the Conservatives to do the same, dare them to back up their professed concern for weaning drug users from their addiction?

The sad fact is that the poor souls who frequent Insite don't make the most sympathetic faces in an election ad. Just as sad is that no federal leaders think their plight is worth talking about.

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