Sarah Leamon: Despite what Stephen Harper says, supervised injection sites make a difference

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      Earlier this month, Vancouver played host to the eighth annual International HIV/AIDS Conference, bringing the world’s top experts, scientists, doctors, and community planners together and putting the city under a microscope.

      A prestigious opportunity for the city, this conference offers much more than that. It offers the opportunity for leading professionals in the global response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic to gather, share scientific research and developments, and explore realistic mechanisms to move forward.

      But this is not the first time that our city has been recognized for its contributions in the fight against HIV/AIDS—far from it in fact. Vancouver has long been recognized as a world leader in HIV/AIDS research and policy. In 1996, Dr. Julio Montaner and his team at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, which is housed at St. Paul’s Hospital, pioneered an innovative antiretroviral therapy that is still being used today. Over the years, we have received a number of accolades for progressive treatments and policies to deal with HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

      Aside from clinical advances, Vancouver has also garnered a great deal of international attention for its rather prolific supervised injection site, which is aptly named Insite and located in the Downtown East Side.

      Insite first opened its doors in 2003, amidst much controversy. The only Canadian facility of its kind, Insite operates on a "four pillars" approach, balancing harm reduction, prevention, treatment, and enforcement. Its mission, as stated on its website, is to provide a “safe, health-focused place where people inject drugs and connect to health care services – from primary care to treat disease and infection, to addiction counselling and treatment, to housing and community support.”

      As indomitable as it sounds, Insite has been no stranger to challenges, both legal and political, over the years. After the Liberal government was replaced by the Conservatives in 2006, Insite had its work cut out for it. By 2011, the facility found itself before the Supreme Court of Canada with its future hanging in the balance. Ultimately, the court unanimously ruled in its favor, allowing the facility to continue operating and stating that the federal governments’ attempts to close it violated the Charter by unjustifiably threatening the lives of injection drug users.

      While this ruling was a major victory for Insite supporters, it has done very little to quell those who continue to rally against it. Vocal opponents, including Conservative Health Minister Rona Ambrose, continue to argue that supervised injection sites do nothing to reduce the use of illegal narcotics or to help addicts who are suffering.

      However, it’s difficult to argue with the results. In the 12 years since it has opened, there have been zero overdose deaths at Insite despite the fact that approximately 600 injections a day happen within its walls, and, between 1996 and 2010, B.C. saw a 60 percent decrease in new HIV diagnoses. Experts attribute this decline, at least in part, to the practical, harm-reduction techniques that have been successfully employed by Insite.

      It therefore seems more likely that the Conservative government and its supporters continue to object to Insite for strategic, political reasons.

      Throughout the years, the drug policies put forward by Prime Minister Stephen Harper have been consistently harsh and unremitting. With a mission to crack down on crime, Harper has introduced mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offences and has approached the issue with a gusto that was perhaps only rivalled by President Nixon during his now laughable "War on Drugs". When we consider the science, the statistics, and the evidence, Harper’s position on this issue seems even more out-dated and disconnected from reality than ever.

      The bottom line is that narcotic use and HIV/AIDS prevention are real issues that affect the lives of real Canadians. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, there are 65,000 people living with HIV in Canada today. An estimated 3,300 new cases of HIV are diagnosed in this country every year. While cities in Saskatchewan are experiencing a surge in HIV/AIDS infection rates due to injection drug use in densely populated, urban areas, Vancouver is showing signs of improvement. The fact that we are also home to Insite cannot be a mere coincidence.

      Despite what Stephen Harper says—Insite works. It is an innovative and effective model that has made a tangible difference in our city, and it should be employed to the benefit of all Canadians—and with other cities, like Montreal, having already requested legal approval for supervised injection sites of their own, we just may soon see this turn into a reality.