Three high-profile former mayors of Vancouver, from across the political spectrum, added their voices yesterday to a growing chorus in support of keeping the doors open at North America's only safe-injection site for heroin addicts.
Despite overwhelming police, public and political backing, the facility that more than 600 addicts use every day will have to close next month, unless the Conservative federal government renews its exemption from the country's drug laws.
The exemption runs out on Sept. 12, and the government has said only that it is reviewing the matter.
"There is no question that the safe-injection site is saving lives," said Liberal Senator and former mayor Larry Campbell, who was also chief provincial coroner at a time when several hundred addicts a year were dying from drug overdoses.
Since the clinic, known as Insite, opened three years ago in the heart of the drug-ravaged Downtown Eastside, not one of the 453 recorded overdoses there has been fatal.
Mr. Campbell joined former mayors Mike Harcourt, who is also a former NDP premier, and Phillip Owen of the rightist NPA municipal party, in signing a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging him to maintain the clinic's operation.
"This is not a Liberal or Conservative issue," Mr. Campbell said. "It's about saving lives. It's about reducing the incidence of HIV and AIDS. It's about public disorder, and it's about safer streets."
Proponents of the site, where addicts inject heroin in clean, stainless steel booths with nurses and counsellors present, argue that its presence has significantly reduced the number of users sharing needles and shooting up in public.
Scientific, peer-reviewed studies of Insite users have found that the rate of addicts seeking to quit their habit has gone up, while there is no evidence that the facility has increased drug use.
"The war on drugs has been a terrible failure," Mr. Harcourt told a news conference attended by the former mayors. "All of us agree that there is a better way, and Insite is an integral part of that. It needs to be kept going. Evidence and support for it are overwhelming."
Mr. Owen, whom many believe lost the support of his own party for his strong advocacy of a safe-injection site, said similar sites already exist in more than 50 cities around the world.
"We are not trying to pioneer anything here. This is the way the world is moving. Drug-policy reform, not prohibition, is the way to go," Mr. Owen said.
Insite's annual $2-million operating costs are covered by the provincial government, but Ottawa's consent is needed to allow heroin users to inject an illegal drug without danger of prosecution.
During the federal election campaign in January, Mr. Harper said he was not in favour of government support for so-called harm-reduction facilities, where use of banned drugs is tolerated.
In the years leading up to the opening of the site, there were cries of protest from Chinatown and Gastown merchants, but now it is difficult to find anyone in the city urging that Insite be closed down.
"We are not just a bunch of wing nuts getting together and saying this is the way to go," Mr. Campbell said.
"We are pragmatic, fiscally responsible and we are making money. One study found that Insite has saved taxpayers $8-million in crime and health-care costs."
The letter to Mr. Harper signed by the three mayors said the facility "is helping make a very troubled neighbourhood safer, while providing medical attention to some of its most vulnerable people.
"Please allow Insite to continue its work."
Meanwhile, Mark Townsend of the Portland Hotel Society, which runs the site, said every effort will be made to keep the clinic running, even if Ottawa cancels the legal exemption.
He likened the situation to a medical trial involving a new pill that has been shown to be beneficial.
"You can't just cut it off," he said. "We have to look at the legal and moral implications. We don't know who or when, but we know that someone will die from an overdose who would otherwise be alive if Insite had been open.
"Although it will be a struggle, we will do our very best to stay open if the exemption isn't granted."
Mr. Owen said he has been lobbying Conservative MPs from B.C. on the issue and remains confident that the exemption will come through.
"I don't sense any resistance. There is none of that Randy White chatter any more," he said, referring to the former Tory MP from the Fraser Valley who was an outspoken opponent of the site.
"I think they're listening to what we have to say."