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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa takes injection battle to top court

A small kit of supplies containing syringes, bandaids and antiseptic pads waits to be used by a drug addict inside a safe injection site on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

ANDY CLARK/Andy Clark/Reuters

The federal government is heading to the Supreme Court of Canada to try to shut down Vancouver's supervised drug-injection site, but British Columbia's Health Minister says Conservative politicians should get past their ideological opposition to the facility.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said yesterday that the recent B.C. Appeal Court ruling affirming Insite provides addicts with health care, which is a provincial jurisdiction, opened the door to an appeal to Canada's highest court.

"There was a dissenting opinion in the B.C. Court of Appeal, and the government of Canada believes it is important that the Supreme Court of Canada be asked to rule on this matter," Mr. Nicholson said in a statement.

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The Jan. 15 ruling said the site that allows addicts to shoot up their own drugs under a nurse's supervision provides health services and that the provinces, not Ottawa, have control over health care and therefore Insite as well.

"This case raises important questions regarding the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunity and the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments," Mr. Nicholson said.

He said the federal government agrees that addicts need help but believes the approach of the safe-injection site, called Insite, is not the right solution.

"Our national anti-drug strategy focuses on prevention and access to treatment for those with drug dependencies," he said.

But supporters of Insite say the federal government is wasting its time and taxpayers' money by trying to close down a facility that helps addicts.

Kevin Falcon, British Columbia's Health Minister, said Ottawa's decision to file another appeal against Insite is the wrong way to go.

"I'm disappointed because this is a program that has received very widespread independent medical journal support for the outcomes and the efforts they are making on a medical basis to treat some of the most difficult addicts you can imagine," he said in an interview.

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Mr. Falcon said he was once a skeptic of Insite and considered it a licence for addicts to use drugs but that the medical literature he read in highly regarded journals such as the Lancet persuaded him to change his mind.

He said he hopes Mr. Nicholson would also make his judgments after considering the evidence.

"I would really encourage him to read the medical journals that have independently evaluated the program and have shown, in a very comprehensive way, that it is achieving results," Mr. Falcon said.

"As ministers of the Crown I think we ought to, as best as we can, be guided by the evidence and the facts. And I understand the ideological hesitation, no question about it. I've been there."

Insite opened as a pilot project in 2003 under a federal exemption of Canada's drug laws. Last year, the provincial government spent $2.9 million on the program.

Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS, said Ottawa's ongoing court battles against Insite are taking away from a program that should be expanded to other areas.

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"Here we have another instance of serious interference on the part of the federal government, which is actually not trivial because what this is doing is inhibiting our ability to build on the success of Insite," he said.

"It's particularly disappointing that the Minister of Justice and the Attorney-General of Canada, Rob Nicholson, specifically stated the government recognizes the need for assistance for injection drug users. I would like to remind him that this is exactly what we are trying to do."

Dr. Montaner questioned the timing of Mr. Nicholson's announcement, noting it comes at a time when Parliament has been suspended and most Canadians aren't paying much attention to federal government announcements days before the Olympic Games begin.

Mark Townsend, executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, one of the organizations that runs Insite, said he felt "sick and depressed" when he heard Ottawa was starting a third court battle against Insite.

"We're not set up, really, to fight the Prime Minister," he said.

"Addiction, in Canada, is a huge scourge and yet (the government) does is nothing. We're here trying to do something while they've been attacking us. We've opened detox beds, we're running this thing," he said.

"Every time they've gone to court with us they've lost more and more. and we told them we don't want to go to court. We see this as not a legal, jurisdiction thing, not a political thing. This is just about public health."

We see this as not a legal, jurisdiction thing, not a political thing. This is just about public health.

Mark Townsend, executive director of the Portland Hotel Society

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