Health professionals who support Vancouver's safe injection site are unethical and immoral, federal Health Minister Tony Clement suggested yesterday.
"The supervised injection site undercuts the ethic of medical practice and sets a debilitating example for all physicians and nurses, both present and future in Canada," he scolded in an address to the Canadian Medical Association general council meeting in Montreal.
He called providing a safe injection site to drug addicts tantamount to offering palliative care to a patient with a treatable form of cancer.
"This is a profound moral issue, and when Canadians are fully informed of it, I believe they will reject it on principle," the minister said.
His comments come as the Conservatives have bombarded urban ridings in Vancouver and Toronto with ads, sent free using MPs' mailing privileges, that depict a discarded syringe and a headline that states: "Junkies and pushers don't belong near children and families. They should be in rehab or behind bars."
The campaign, in addition to Mr. Clement's remarks, shows the Conservatives are trying to make illegal drugs an issue that will separate them from other parties and influence key swing voters, especially women.
Yesterday, Mr. Clement took issue specifically with a letter he received from CMA president Brian Day that stated: "There is growing evidence that harm-reduction efforts can have a positive effect on the poor health outcomes associated with drug use."
The minister retorted: "Is it true that supervised injections offer 'positive health outcomes?' I would not put it this way. Insite [Vancouver's safe injection site]may slow the death spiral of a deadly drug habit, but it does not reverse it. I do not regard this as a positive health outcome."
After the speech, Dr. Day said the "minister is off base in calling into question the ethics of physicians" and accused Mr. Clement of "manipulating medical ethics to make a political point."
Dr. Day noted that in a poll of Canadian physicians, 79 per cent supported harm-reduction measures, including safe injection sites.
"We have an opinion based on scientific evidence. The minister has come to a different conclusion," he said.
Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal public-health critic and a physician, was livid after the minister's speech.
"I've never seen such an offensive performance by a health minister," she said. "How dare he come to a meeting of professionals and scold them about their perceived ethical failings."
At Insite, a small facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, drug users inject themselves while supervised by nurses and physicians, and receive counselling about rehabilitation.
Clean needles are provided, but drugs are not; the principal purpose is to limit the spread of infectious diseases. Insite was granted an exemption from federal drug laws in 2003 so its users cannot be prosecuted for drug possession.
The Conservative government has vowed to close Insite, but the facility won a reprieve this spring when the B.C. Supreme Court struck down parts of Canada's drug laws. Ottawa has appealed.
Mr. Clement said yesterday that he would like Insite to "remain open with a changed mandate of prevention and treatment instead of drug maintenance."
He said that drug addicts need treatment, and safe injection facilities are counterproductive.
"Injections are not medicine. They do not heal. We need to offer them healing."
The new Conservative ad campaign picks up where Mr. Clement's message leaves off with its call to "keep junkies in rehab and off the streets." It includes pictures of the party leaders and asks which of them is on track to fight crime.
The text reads: "Thugs, drug pushers and others involved in the drug trade are writing their own rules. For too long, lax Liberal governments left gangs and drug pushers to make their own rules and set their own criminal agenda. Those days are over."
The Tories have lower support among women, and pollsters for both Conservatives and Liberals have found that women and seniors feel vulnerable to crime. A promise to keep junkies away from children is a direct pitch.
The pamphlets have opposition MPs accusing the Tories of electioneering with public funds.
Each MP is allowed to send free mail to a number of households outside their riding that is equal to 10 per cent of their own riding.
Some of the drug pamphlets sent to Toronto homes came under the stamp of Alberta MP John Williams; others sent to Vancouver were marked from MPs from other parts of the country.
Vancouver Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh said the pamphlets are too partisan to be acceptable under the 10-per-cent mailing rule, which is supposed to cover an MP's parliamentary duties.
"This message goes beyond what ought to be an acceptable 10 per center," he said. "What's questionable is the ethics of a government that would allow vulnerable people to die without getting help."
A Conservative Party spokesman, Ryan Sparrow, rejected the suggestion that the pamphlet was too partisan.
"You're debating a policy and you're asking which political party or which political leader is on the right track," he said.