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montrealgazette.com, January 03, 2012

$600K spent in bid to close injection site underscores Tory stubbornness

The Harper government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in its unsuccessful legal battle against Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection site, according to newly released documents.

Between 2006 and 2011, the Conservatives spent $637,158 in a bid to shut down the Downtown Eastside clinic — funds that represented more than 20 per cent of Insite's annual $3-million operating budget.

The clinic, opened in 2003, has long been a burr under the saddle of a federal government that has fiercely resisted embracing the harm-reduction philosophy which underpins the clinic's operations.

The federal legal bill comes courtesy of a Justice Department reply to an access to information request, submitted last October by the Vancouver Sun. The request followed a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in favour of keeping the clinic open.

In a unanimous decision, the judges ruled that not allowing the clinic to operate under an exemption from drug laws would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Harper regime between 2006 and 2008 reluctantly had granted the facility an exemption from drug laws, allowing it to operate. But between 2008 and last autumn's court ruling, it waged legal action to close down the clinic.

This, despite the fact Insite has had the long-standing support of both the Vancouver and B.C. governments. Polls show the clinic also has the support of about 70 per cent of Vancouverites.

And it has shown itself to be effective in reducing harm. In 2009, nearly 500 overdoses occurred at the clinic but no deaths. In 2010, 221 overdoses occurred with no deaths.

A 2011 study in the British medical journal The Lancet found overdose deaths have dropped 35 per cent in the area of the clinic since it opened.

However, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has explained that her government prefers to focus its efforts on prevention and treatment.

Insite's main goal is neither of these. With 12 injection booths and a staff that includes nurses, counsellors and mental health and social workers, the clinic attempts to reduce harm that users do to themselves, particularly by way of overdosing.

The clinic does not supply any drugs; rather, it provides a safe, medically supervised location and clean needles for addicts to administer their drugs. Importantly, it also provides counselling for those wishing to get off drugs.

Last year, the clinic was responsible for 5,268 referrals to various social and health agencies and 458 drug users were admitted to detox programs. Surely, this is the most worthwhile part of what the clinic does.

As the clinic's website states: "Through Insite, clients develop trusting relationships with our health care and social workers, making them more likely to pursue withdrawal management, addiction counselling and other addiction treatment services."

The government's vigorous legal battle against the clinic — even in the face of community acceptance and research showing the centre's effectiveness in reducing fatalities — shows an unproductive stubborn streak. The same bull-headed approach was in evidence in the Conservatives' determination in 2010 to get rid of the long-form census, against widespread advice, and their refusal last fall to reconsider an expensive, punitive omnibus crime bill at a time when crime rates have been falling in Canada.

The Harper government certainly allowed its ideological leanings to get in the way of rational decision-making in the case of Insite. The result was an unnecessary expenditure of a bucket full of public cash at a time when Ottawa is working hard to reduce spending in order to balance the federal budget.
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