Thursday, December 14, 2006

Injection site condemned for saving lives, reducing addiction

VICTORIA - Who would think that the most disturbing words I’ve seen in print for years would come from a Mountie?
When people look back on these times, they will be baffled by our persistent stupidity when it comes to drugs. From alcohol in the ‘30s to crystal meth 70 years later later we keep trying to police addictions and abuse out of existence.
In the process we have spent untold fortunes, bankrolled every organized crime group from the Mafia to bikers to Asian gangs and watched as more people suffered and died, more families were destroyed and more communities damaged.
And in all that time the approach never once showed any signs of working.
The disturbing — even obscene — words came in an RCMP report on Insite, the Vancouver safe-injection site.
The site opened in late 2003, Canada’s first experiment in giving addicts a safe, clean place to shoot up. The theory — tested in other countries — is that the site offers big benefits. People injecting drugs in the centre don’t share needles, so they don’t spread HIV and hepatitis and other illnesses. If they overdose, help is near. They can get medical care. If they’re ready to try quitting, they can be referred to services.
And they aren’t sticking needles in their arms on the street, a significant benefit to neighbours and nearby businesses.
It has worked. More than dozen serious research studies have looked at Insite’s impact. They’ve been reviewed by independent scientists and published in The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine and other journals. The site has increased the chance addicts will decide to try treatment. It has cut the spread of deadly diseases and saved lives. Street problems are reduced.
And there is no evidence that it has increased drug use, which is not surprising. People are not going to go say, “hey, a safe-injection site, I think I’ll try heroin.”
But the Conservative government is unconvinced.
Insite’s three-year operating certificate was up for renewal this fall. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he didn’t have enough information to make a decision, despite the research and the support from Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, Premier Gordon Campbell, Vancouver police and public-health officials.
The federal government refused to renew Insite’s operating certificate, instead giving the site a temporary reprieve until the end of next year. The prime minister said he wanted more research (then his goverment cut off research funding). Harper said he especially wanted to hear from the RCMP.
Peter O’Neil of the Vancouver Sun made a freedom of information request for RCMP documents on Insite. He found that the Mounties’ regional co-ordinator for drugs and organized crime awareness had prepared a negative report.
There were no statistics or analysis in the three-page document, just opinion. The RCMP doesn’t actually patrol the area where the site is located.
And the report didn’t provide any evidence to challenge the studies showing the site has resulted in more people seeking treatment and saved lives.
In fact, the RCMP argues, the fact that the site saves lives might be a bad thing.
''The RCMP has concerns regarding any initiative that lowers the perceived risks associated with drug use," the report says. 'There is considerable evidence to show that, when the perceived risks associated to drug use decreases, there is a corresponding increase in number of people using drugs.”
Stop and think what those two sentences say.
The RCMP “has concerns” about a safe-injection site or any other measure that makes drug use less dangerous.
If someone’s daughter gets AIDs, or someone’s father dies in an alley, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says our national police force. More deaths and illness might deter others from doing drugs.
It’s cruel and stupid, especially as people have been dying for years and drug use continues.
Safe-injection sites save lives, reduce addiction and make the community safer.
And those, apparently, are seen as bad things by the RCMP and the Harper government.
Footnote: The safe-injection site has been criticized by U.S. drug officials. And reports this week revealed the Harper government has been consulting U.S. government officials on its new drug policy, holding meetings between “various senior-level meetings between U.S. officials and ministers/ministers’ offices.” It would a be a tragedy if Canada followed the disastrously expensive, ineffective U.S. approach.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The big question about treaties

VICTORIA - Three draft treaties in less than two months. Not a bad way for First Nations and the provincial and federal governments to end the year.
And at the same time, the latest deals are a reminder of the need to get moving on treaties across the province.
The Maa-nulth First Nations from Vancouver Island's west coast were the latest to initial a treaty, days after the Tsawwassen band agreed to tentative terms. Add in the deal reached with the Lheidli T'eneh in October and you've got a large chunk of the province covered - a coastal group of First Nations, an urban band and one from the northern Interior.
First Nations don't like the idea that these agreements are setting patterns for future settlements. Each of the 47 sets of negotiations is different, they maintain.
But practically, these deals are setting benchmarks. Or they should be.
These aren't yet treaties. The federal and provincial governments have to approve them - a formality now that the Campbell Liberals have abandoned their past objections to treaties. There have been complaints about provisions that would see land taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve as part of the Tsawwassen deal and concerns that non-
natives leaving on reserve lands won't have votes on all decisions.
But without a political party leading the opposition, as the Liberals did in trying to kill the Nisga'a treaty, speedy government approval is assured.
The bigger risk lies in the membership votes each First Nation will hold. The band members are making an enormous decision. The treaties are final settlements of all outstanding claims. There's no chance to try again if a mistake is made. The members know that their vote will affect the lives of future generations.
They will be looking at the fairness of the agreements, in terms of what's been lost and what is offered. And members will be wondering if their negotiators have left anything on the table - whether waiting could produce a better deal.
That's more of a problem. Broadly, these agreements look fair. The five first nations that are part of the Maa-nulth group, for example, will get about $300 million over the next 25 years.  They'll get about 240 square kilometers of land - figure 60 Stanley Parks - including some high-value oceanfront with development potential. That's about eight per cent of the traditional territory they claimed.
But Maa-nulth voters s will be wondering if they could get more by waiting.
It's a fair question. Setting a value on a treaty deal is difficult, but estimate this agreement at $200,000 per member in land and cash over the next few decades.
That's significantly better than the Nisga'a did with their agreement, approved in 2000. And it's much better than a tentative agreement reached on behalf of the Maa-
nulth and other Vancouver Island First Nations in 2001, just before the election. That agreement fell apart and led to a breakup of the native negotiating group.
The lesson - for First Nations voting on these treaties and others still bargaining - could easily be that waiting pays. That's especially true, as B.C.'s acting auditor general noted in a report earlier this month, if interim agreements developed as part of the province's "new relationship" provide some of the benefits of treaties without any commitments. There are benefits to First Nations in getting treaties done quickly. The sooner the agreements are signed, the sooner they can begin working towards what should be a better future.
But federal and provincial government negotiators are also going to have to be clear. While First Nations can still expect meaningful negotiations at treaty tables, the compensation pattern, in broad terms, is being set now. The Tsawwassen, Maa-nulth and Lheidli T'eneh need to know that it will not be a mistake to lead the way.
If they have that confidence, B.C. could be on the brink of an important step forward on treaties.
Footnote: The rising costs of settlement raise again the question of how different things might be today if the B.C. Liberals had not fought the Nisga'a treaty and given up at least two years of potential progress while they conducted the now-ignored referendum on treaty principles.