Skip to main content

Delegates from Brazil and Columbia are shown overdose kits by Russ Maynard (middle), Clinical Coordinator at Insite, as they tour Onsite and Insite in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as part of a search for a new approach to drug policies, June 25, 2013.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A group of South American health professionals is looking to follow Vancouver's lead in reducing harm when it comes to injection-drug use.

The South American delegation, which arrived in Vancouver on Tuesday, will spend three days meeting with local health-care providers and researchers, including managers at Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection-drug clinic.

The visit, however, comes at a time when safe-injection sites continue to face political opposition in Canada, and Insite remains a one-of-a-kind facility in the country.

The South American delegation is made up of representatives from health organizations in Brazil and Colombia.

"Canada is one of the countries with one of the best harm-reduction programs. And Vancouver is a city that has a program for drug users that is not only one of the most advanced, but is also very sophisticated," said Ines Mejia, a consultant with the Colombian health ministry, through a translator. "We want to use what you have here in our country, which is only starting to have a heroin drug addiction [problem]. We want to use the model of harm reduction."

Ms. Mejia says while marijuana and cocaine continue to be the most used drugs in Colombia, heroin is becoming more common in several pockets across the country.

Vancouver's Insite clinic – where addicts can administer drugs with clean syringes and under supervision – has garnered praise both in Canada and abroad. Studies published on the clinic have indicated that the program has resulted in a drop in public injections in back alleys and doorways. Part of Insite's mandate is also to connect drug users with other services, whether that be treatment for drug-related abscesses or dental care.

Ms. Mejia says that harm reduction is not a concept that has taken firm root in Colombia, and government resources are mostly used to combat the drug supply, including fighting drug lords and getting rid of illegal plantations.

"We have to sell what we see here and go back home and show the need for it," she said. "To see the drug user as a human being, the focus on the humanity, the concept of reducing suffering."

But Insite workers say they can't help but see a bit of irony in workers from other countries looking at Canada for leadership.

Insite has always operated under an exception from current drug laws. The federal Conservatives, who have long shown their distaste for injection drug sites since coming to office, ended Insite's exemption in 2008, although the clinic continued to function while the decision was challenged in the courts.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled in 2011 that the federal government has the jurisdictional right to use criminal law to restrict illicit-drug use, but that the concerns it cited in an attempt to close Insite were "grossly disproportionate" to the benefits for drug users and the community. Therefore, the court ruled, Insite could continue to operate.

But a new bill tabled by the Conservatives in early June of this year would make it more difficult for new injection sites to open, health-care advocates say.

The Respect For Communities Act would require the federal government to consider the views of police, provincial ministers and local government officials before granting a clinic an exemption to drug laws.

The federal health minister would also consult with public health officials and community groups to determine the clinic's financial sustainability.

"[Insite] is actually saving lives and helping the community in a very effective way," said Liz Evans, the executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, the organization that co-manages Insite. "But it's incredibly frustrating that we get it, and folks from other countries look to it, but in our own country our federal government is not acknowledging how important it is."