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A terrible mistake or . . .

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Student articles

Matthew Pearson

Terrible mistake or terribly mistaken? When it comes to Vancouver’s safe injection site, Insite, politicians and advocates continue to be divided.

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani inserted himself into the debate last week during a visit to the city. He called Insite a “terrible mistake” and said the clinic would encourage the use of illegal drugs.

Giuliani, who originally made his name as mayor by cracking down on street crime, isn’t the first politician to take a swing at Insite. A few weeks before the federal election campaign began, Health Minister Tony Clement questioned the ethics of health professionals who support the clinic.

Insite is the first legal supervised injection site in North America. Addicts are not supplied illicit or illegal drugs, but they do have access to clean needles and other injection equipment. The 12-seat clinic is a safe and sterile alternative to shooting up in the downtown East Side’s blighted back alleys.

When it opened in 2003, Insite was exempted from federal drug laws so users would not be charged with drug possession. The Conservatives vowed to close it, but were stopped in their tracks when the B.C. Supreme Court struck down parts of federal drug laws. The government is currently appealing the decision.

Advocates say harm reduction models like Insite and the countless needle exchange programs across the country can be a tough sell for political parties trying to get elected.

“The problem with drug policy is that it’s become such a political hot potato nobody really wants to touch it,” said Eugene Oscapella, a founding member of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.

“If I were running for office and I said, ‘We should regulate drugs and move away from criminal prohibition,’ I’d be a very easy target and somebody would say, ‘He’s just being soft on drugs, he wants to give drugs to kids,’” he said.

Oscapella said his non-profit group — a coterie of lawyers, psychologists, criminologists and public policy researchers — is not pro-drug, but rather pro-sensible drug policy.

“What we’re looking for are rational policies that minimize the harms associated with drugs,” he said.

He added the current government’s approach is led by ideology, not evidence.

“Drug policy is not being driven by rational evidence, it’s being led by ideology — very punitive, backwards ideology,” Oscapella said.

Others say the Conservatives are heading in the right direction.

“The proper response of the government is to continue to educate people in the dangers of drug use and continue a strong law enforcement element,” said Joseph Ben-Ami, president of the Canadian Institute for Policy Studies, a right-of-centre think-tank.

He said the Conservatives are closer to “getting it right” than any other federal party, but added the health minister was a bit slow on the uptake when it came to Insite.

“We were a little surprised it took him so long to speak out on it, but now he has. We’re in pretty strong agreement with the kinds of things he’s been saying,” he said.

Ben-Ami questioned how proponents of Insite could suggest it has helped lower the neighbourhood’s crime rate.

“Every time they said they were reducing crime, by definition they weren’t. Everybody who went into Insite purchased drugs illegally,” he said. “It’s counterintuitive.”

If the Conservatives’ position on the issue wasn’t clear before, a mailing last month into key urban ridings across the country — including the Vancouver East riding where Insite is located — leaves little room for doubt. The flyer showed a discarded syringe under the headline, “Junkies and drug pushers don’t belong near children and families. They should be in rehab or behind bars.”

Oscapella called it “propaganda” and said the use of the word “junkies” was derogatory.

As for the opposition parties, he credited the Liberals for opening Insite and legalizing access to medicinal marijuana. The party’s public health critic, Toronto MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett, said the issue of harm reduction is more complex than people think.

 “You have to reduce harm in order to have people live long enough to get help,” she said. “Just like smoking, it sometimes takes people three, four, five or six times to actually get off drugs,” she said.

Oscapella said the NDP recognizes that prohibition causes more harm than good. Vancouver East remains one of the party’s most bankable ridings and its MP, Libby Davies, is an outspoken Insite supporter.

The Green Party platform calls for increased funding for harm reduction initiatives. But deputy leader Adrienne Carr said it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

 “It doesn’t replace the need for prevention, nor for treatment, but we believe clinics like Insite must be supported. In fact, we need more Insites across the country,” she said.

While the story of this election campaign is still being written, Oscapella said he doubted harm reduction would be a major chapter.

 “It’s not going to get the play it deserves to because this is a massive social problem we’ve created through the way we’ve chosen to deal with drugs,” he said.

Matthew Pearson is a student in the Master of Journalism program at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.