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Stakeholders at odds over proposed safe-injection site restrictions

Vancouver’s InSite safe injection site has been credited with reducing fatal drug overdoses by 35 per cent.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Key law-enforcement officials are praising obstacles created by the Harper government to limit federal approval of new supervised injection sites for drugs users.

But health experts who work with addicts say the proposed rules ignore the evidence that the sites save lives.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq tabled a bill in Parliament on Thursday that would require the federal government to consider a range of factors, including the views of police and local government officials, before granting exemptions to drug laws and allowing the clinics to operate.

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"Our government believes that a site involving the use of illicit substances should be strictly controlled to protect everyone in the community," Ms. Aglukkaq told reporters. "Accordingly, we believe that the application process needs to be changed to create formal opportunities for local voices to be heard and their views considered before an exemption would be considered."

Authorities in Vancouver have been supportive of InSite, a supervised drug-injection clinic that has operated for 10 years in the city's gritty Downtown Eastside. The site is credited with reducing fatal overdoses by 35 per cent and limiting the spread of blood-borne diseases such as AIDS.

Other municipalities, however, have been less welcoming. Mayor Jim Watson of Ottawa has made it clear he does not want a supervised drug-injection site in his city. Neither does Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto. And the police chiefs in those municipalities are equally opposed.

Chief Bill Blair of the Toronto police is concerned for the welfare of individuals addicts, said Mark Pugash, a spokesman for the force. "But he sees significant harm to neighbourhoods in which those facilities are located," said Mr. Pugash.

The medical profession, on the other hand, is supportive of the clinics. Both the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association said Thursday that supervised injection sites represent an important harm-reduction measure.

Mark Tyndall, the chair of the infectious diseases division of the Ottawa Hospital, worked in Vancouver for 12 years and said the problems of drug addicts in the two cities are remarkably similar. Something like InSite, he said, would save lives in Ottawa "definitely, hands down."

Dr. Tyndall and his colleagues are following a cohort of local drug users. He said the vast majority of them have indicated that they would use a clinic like InSite but "somehow their voices aren't heard."

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If the new bill is passed into law, a federal health minister considering a proposal for a new supervised drug injection clinic would have to hear from a wide range of local officials, determine the clinic's financial sustainability, insist on record checks for staff, and assess the scientific evidence of a medical benefit along with a wide range of other factors. Meanwhile, the clinic itself would have to go through a different set of hoops.

The federal Conservatives tried to end the exemption for InSite in 2008 but the Supreme Court said the federal government may not ban such sites if closing them would increase the risk of death and disease among drug addicts.

Cactus Montréal, which operates a needle-exchange program, says the federal government's bill took it by surprise. Officials at the downtown Montreal community clinic said they will press ahead with plans to open a supervised drug-injection site, which has the support of Quebec health and other officials.

"There is no question of giving up," director general Sandhia Vadlamudy said Thursday. "This [bill] tells us the door to getting our exemption isn't open very wide, but we're confident we can respond to the new demands." She felt the Harper government was taking "a more ideological approach" to the injection sites, while her group is committed to their health benefits.

In fact, shortly after the bill was tabled in Parliament, Jenni Byrne, the national campaign manager for the federal Conservatives, sent out a missive to the party's supporters asking them whether they would want a supervised drug consumption site in their community.

"These are facilities where drug addicts get to shoot up heroin and other illicit drugs," wrote Ms. Byrne. "I don't want one anywhere near my home."

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Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said Ms. Byrne's e-mail was intended to fear monger.

"It's hard to imagine how anyone could expect good faith on the part of the government in considering an application," said Mr. Elliott, "when it's simultaneously demonizing people with addictions and stoking misinformed fear as a way to block health services for some of the most vulnerable Canadians"

With a report from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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