On the eve of the expected unveiling next week of the federal Conservatives' long-waited anti-drug strategy, a significant new study has endorsed the benefits of Vancouver's controversial safe-injection site for heroin addicts, a pilot project many fear Ottawa will end.
The study, published today in the London-based medical journal Addiction, found that use of the city's supervised injection facility known as Insite increased the rate of addicts entering detox by 30 per cent.
As well, the study determined users of North America's only safe-injection site were more likely to reduce their heroin intake and pursue formal treatment programs such as methadone once they left detox.
The dramatic findings appear to echo precisely what the ultimate arbiter of the facility's fate, federal Health Minister Tony Clement, has said Insite needs to demonstrate to prove its worth: lower drug use and success in fighting addiction.
They also fly in the face of an earlier RCMP report critical of the site, asserting there is "considerable evidence" that allowing addicts to shoot up safely increases the use of illegal drugs.
Despite the study, however, Insite backers continue to worrythat the distaste of many Conservatives for harm-reduction programs, which treat drug addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal matter, will result in the centre's demise by the end of the year.
They point to numerous previous scientific studies in medical publications such as the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, all of which found a positive impact on drug users and the surrounding neighbourhood since Insite opened more than three years ago.
Yet Mr. Clement has called for more research before making a decision on the facility's future.
"The government has seemed intent on ignoring scientific evidence to pursue an ideological agenda at the expense of lives in the Downtown Eastside," said Dr. Julio Montaner, one of the study's authors and director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
"It is time for the federal government to accept the evidence and move the debate to a higher level."
Underscoring widespread skepticism among many researchers over the government's alleged anti-harm-reduction agenda is a decision by five leading scientists to boycott bidding for Health Canada contracts to conduct further research into Insite's operation.
In an open letter to senior Health Canada policy analyst Tracey Donaldson, the group said the five-month time frame is too short, compensation is insufficient and successful bidders must agree to keep mum over their research for six months.
"In no way is that acceptable to any academic," one of the scientists, Benedikt Fischer of the University of Victoria, said yesterday. "And how can anyone produce anything meaningful in such a short time that goes beyond what has already been done by other researchers? There are already 40 to The Addiction study based its findings on interviews and database searches involving more than 1,000 Insite users. Researchers compared their activity in the year before visiting Insite and the year following their first use of the facility.
A complicated mathematical adjustment taking other factors into consideration produced a final conclusion that the rate of addicts entering detoxification rose 30 per cent among those using the injection facility.