Federal Government to Appeal Insite Ruling

Last month, the federal government lost their appeal of a court ruling on Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site. There was hope among the site’s proponents that the Conservatives’ legal challenges might end there. Alas, our Prime Minister is keen to bring the case before the Supreme Court of Canada:

The case has raised important questions about the division of powers among federal and provincial governments that need answers, said Justice Minister Rob Nicholson on Parliament Hill Tuesday.

“The case we’ll be presenting before the court is to ask for clarification,” he said. “I think it is important to do that.” Nicholson pointed out that there was a dissenting opinion in the lower court ruling. “I think it is appropriate for me to seek leave to appeal,” he said.

What, I wonder, is our federal government justification for this ongoing lawsuit? As this great Slate profile puts it, the site’s efficacy has been demonstrated by “dozens of peer-reviewed articles…published in scientific journals like the Lancet, the American Journal of Public Health, and the New England Journal of Medicine“. Those publications describe how Insite has reduced public injections, behaviour like needle sharing that increases HIV transmission and increased adoption of addiction treatment programs. In 2009 alone, the centre oversaw over 700 daily visits, and handled 484 overdoses without a fatality.

It’s that rarest of success–a drug program that works effectively. It reduces harm, saves money and introduces addicts to treatment programs. I’m ashamed that my government so aggressively opposes this success that they want to litigate it out of existence. The ongoing legal action is absurd, and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Get Your Free Drugs Here

On a related note, I enjoyed the fourth part of the Slate profile of Vancouver’s drug problem. In it, writer Matthew Power discusses a more radical program that I’ve always thought made sense: free heroin for addicts. A trial has been run in Vancouver in recent years, and the results are pretty interesting:

Schecter found that 88 percent of the heroin maintenance group stayed on their course of treatment, versus 54 percent in the methadone group. Illegal activity in the heroin group was reduced 67 percent, versus 47.7 percent in the methadone group. Out of 89,000 injections, there were only 10 overdoses and no fatalities…Schecter claims opiate maintenance makes sense: An untreated heroin addict costs the state $45,000 a year in legal and medical bills; heroin maintenance costs $7,000. “Sure, it’s easy to say, ‘You’re giving heroin to junkies,’ ” Schecter says, but he witnessed the stabilization of the heroin group firsthand. “A subject told me ‘for the first time in 20 years I’m actually thinking about my life.’ That was the line that blew my mind,” he recalled. “They’re actually thinking about the future. Normally they’re thinking about eight hours.”

And, importantly, they’re not thinking about breaking into your house or car. Plus, by taking over the supply, you significantly reduce the much more serious crime of drug trafficking.

And the math is pretty compelling. 5447 unique individuals used Insite last year. Let’s imagine that we could convince just 1000 heroin addicts to accept drugs from the government instead of the street. We just saved ourselves $37 million. I wonder what Feds’ legal bill is up to on this case?

Our society probably isn’t ready for this approach yet, but I think it’s a sensible next step.


  1. This is EXCELLENT Darren! Great math analysis also – there are approx 7000 injectors of heroin and stimulants JUST in the Downtown Eastside. (130,000 people in BC suffering from chronic addiction and mental illness). Another part of the math is that if someone suffering from chronic addiction has to steal to fund their addiction – they receive only one tenth of an item’s value at a pawn shop – so a $100 per day addiction cost – that person must steal $1000 worth of goods every day. (This is certainly an excellent tax free business for all of the drug dealers). In the heroin trial that you mention above (the NAOMI trial) criminal activity also fell by 70% among participants (this was also published in the NEJM). I am wondering what the taxpayer cost of all the Federal Gov’t appeals are? I am having difficulty finding that cost info.

  2. It’s truly incredible how deep the grain of ideology runs in the Conservatives, trumping any amount of quantitative evidence. We’ve become an incredibly sad nation driven by divisiveness, where the government can make great hay out of turning the most desperate in society into ongoing scapegoats, begrudged even the smallest mercy.

  3. And that’s the rub: if government drug and crime policy went by evidence of what works, we’d have very different drug and crime policies in many respects. There is no rationale behind appealing the court ruling other than ideological opposition to anything that appears to condone illegal drug use, regardless of its effectiveness in reducing harm.

    Even though there are many ways in which the current Conservative minority government is as competent as any other federal administration we’ve had, these sorts of boneheaded decisions are why I’ll continue to oppose them.

  4. Looks like protests against the government position have disrupted Prime Minister Harper’s visit to Chinatown today, according to breaking news just coming out at 3 p.m.

  5. The end justifies the means apparently.
    Give them drugs paid for by working slobs.

    We should ask Margaret Somerville her take on this. I’d be interested to hear an ethicist’s opinion.

    Because my gut tells me this is so wrong.
    No matter how you twirl the numbers.

    Sure it’s trendy to support Insite.
    But I never go for trends.
    Do you?

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