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Ottawa hasn't yet decided on Insite support, lawyer says

Shelly Tomic, an addict, walks up the stairs to the Supreme Court before the court hears arguments about Vancouver's supervised injection in Ottawa, Thursday May 12, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Harper government has not decided whether to extend or end federal support for Vancouver's supervised injection site, a lawyer told the Supreme Court of Canada today.

Federal lawyer Robert Frater suggested that statements by former health minister Tony Clement may have given people the impression Ottawa was steadfast in its determination to shut down the program.

Watch a livestream of the court proceedings

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Mr. Clement said after a B.C. court ruled in favour of the facility in May 2008 that the Conservative government wanted Insite shut down.

"In this case, we have given it due process, we've looked at all the evidence, and our position is that the exemption should not be continued," Mr. Clement said at the time, describing the scientific evidence as "mixed."

"In terms of the public policy, it was clear: A better thing to do is to treat people, to prevent people from going on the drugs in the first place."

But Mr. Frater told the court no decision has been reached on whether to extend its exemption from federal drug laws.

"The decision to grant or not to grant the exemption has not been made," he said.

Later, Mr. Frater added: "There are statements by the minister of health that caused them to think it would not be extended."

The top court is to decide whether Insite is a health-care facility under provincial jurisdiction, and whether closing the site violates the rights of drug addicts living in one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods.

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Supporters, including the B.C. government, point to peer-reviewed studies that conclude Insite prevents overdose deaths, reduces the spread of HIV and hepatitis, and curbs crime and open drug use.

The federal government has rejected that evidence, arguing the facility fosters addiction and runs counter to its tough-on-crime agenda.

Insite opened in 2003 after an epidemic rise in overdose deaths in Vancouver's downtown eastside. It was the first supervised injection site in North America.

It was allowed to operate after the Liberal government of the day granted the facility an exemption from federal drug laws.

Joseph Arvay, a lawyer for PHS Community Services Society, which operates the facility with the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, said there's no question that Mr. Clement's comments meant the federal government will terminate the exemption.

"It's completely disingenuous for the minister to come to this court and say, 'oh, we might grant an exemption,'" Mr. Arvay told the court.

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Mr. Frater argued drug control is a job that falls to Ottawa and not the provinces.

"The control of all drugs is ... a matter of exclusive federal control," he said.

There have so far been 1.5 million visits to Insite, with the facility receiving between 700 and 800 visits each day. More than 12,000 people have registered to use the site, with the average user visiting 11 times a month.

The facility has 12 booths where addicts can inject drugs under the supervision of a nurse. There have been roughly 2,400 overdoses at Insite, but no deaths.

The facility is funded entirely by the B.C. government through Vancouver Coastal Health, with a budget of about $2.9-million a year.

"Insite is a life-raft for the people in the downtown eastside," Mr. Arvay told the court. "A life-raft in a sea of misery."

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