Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Clement’s non-decision on safe-injection ignores the facts

VICTORIA - It’s frustrating to watch the Harper government fumble and stumble over the future of Vancouver’s safe-injection site.
After months of waffling - and with less than two weeks before the site’s licence expired - Health Minister Tony Clement said he still couldn’t make up his mind. Instead of granting the three-year licence extension sought for the Insite centre, Clement stalled. The centre can keep going until he makes a decision by end of next year, he said.
It was a blatantly political move. Clement’s non-decision was announced on the Friday before the long weekend, at 7 p.m. Ottawa time. He refused to answer any questions. His handling of the issue suggests the Conservatives want to kill the site, but are afraid it would hurt them politically. By stalling they can keep their intentions secret until after the next election.
Every shred of evidence suggests the safe-injection site has achieved its relatively modest goals without any documented negative effects. The Insite project offers a clean, safe place for people to inject their drugs.  
A nurse is there to deal with problems, help people avoid infection or other medical complications and refer addicts to treatment or services.  Clean needles are available.
The alternative is to have addicts injecting in a flophouse or alley.
The site, the first in North America, has been intensively studied by health researchers. Last month, in Harm Reduction Journal, a report found that it saves taxpayers up to $8 million a year.
Without Insite, there would have been 2,000 additional emergency room visits for abscesses, infections and overdoses, the study found. About 100 of those visits would have resulted in hospitalization, using a desperately needed acute-care bed for an average two weeks.
There were 453 overdoses at Insite. None resulted in death and few required hospital care. Without the centre, 18 to 20 people would have died and and about 100 would have required hospital care.
About 100 people were referred to methadone programs, for many a first step toward dealing with their addiction. At the least, those people will not be scrambling, panhandling and stealing to get money for drugs.
The centre, by cutting down on shared needles and other unsafe practices, also reduced the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C,  serious public health problems.
Other reviews done for the RCMP found there was no increase in crime in the area. The centre did not create new drug users.
Health care costs reduced. Lives saved. People leaving illegal drug use behind. No increase in crime or drug use. Support from the B.C. government, he City of Vancouver and public health officials.
Surely continuing the program - and extending it to other centres across B.C. and Canada where there is support - is a no-brainer.
Clement doesn’t think so. He wants more studies. In the news release announcing the decision, he offered these crafted quotes.
“We believe the best form of harm reduction is to help addicts to break the cycle of dependency,” Clements is quoted. “We also need better education and prevention to ensure Canadians don’t get addicted to drugs in the first place.” Of course. There is likely not a sane person in Canada - including the operators of the safe-injection site - who would not agree with those words. (And wonder why Clement wasn’t doing more in those areas.)
Safe-injection sites aren’t some miracle solution that makes the problem go away. People using the site are still struggling with their addictions and the pain or emptiness or genetic bad luck that brought them there. Their lives are still terrible, dangerous messes. But the site works, by the most pragmatic measures. It saves lives, prevents the spread of deadly diseases, frees up millions in health care costs for other uses and helps some people get clean. All without one real, demonstrated negative effect.
It’s shameful that a government would, apparently, place politics ahead of both sound health policy and peoples’ lives.
Footnote: Clement  has never visited the Vancouver safe-injection site to see how it works. He did travel to Sweden and Denmark this summer to look at drug policies in those two countries,  including a meeting with a Swedish lobby group promoting tougher drug policies. Vancouver’s experiment has attracted world attention; Clement should have visited before making his decision.


Gazetteer said...

What I find amazing is that something so simple can have so many positive and so few negative effects.

Sure says something about how important that 4th pillar could (and should) be, I reckon.

Anonymous said...

No sense the Minister simply going to Vancouver, when he can do a trip to Europe on our dollars. Harper has no intention of keeping the center open but figures by stalling it won't be a election issue if they self destruct this fall. It may well all be nothing much especially now the the BLOC want to debate our adventure in Afghanistan