APTN National News
OTTAWA–The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled against the Conservative government’s efforts to shut down Vancouver’s safe-injection site for drug addicts.
In a 9-0 decision released Friday morning, the high court ordered the federal health minister to grant Insite an exemption so it can continue to provide a safe and clean environment for intravenous drug users.
The Supreme Court dismissed the federal government’s appeal of lower court rulings in British Columbia that gave the Insite clinic a Constitutional exemption from the country’s drug laws to continue to operate.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the government was “disappointed” with the decision, but would “comply” with the ruling.
The court found that the federal minister of health’s decision to deny Insite a permit exempting it from drug laws threatened the health and lives of drug addicts and violated the Constitutional right of addicts to life, liberty and security of the person.
“The minister’s decision…would have prevented injection drug users from accessing the health services offered by Insite, threatening their health and indeed their lives,” said the court, in its precedence-setting ruling.
The court found that the Insite clinic’s operations did not have a negative impact on the “public safety and health objectives of Canada.”
The court also found that the impact of Insite’s service also outweighed any potential benefits from using the country’s drug laws to shut the clinic down.
“During its eight years of operation, Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernable negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada,” the Supreme Court said. “The effect of denying the services of Insite to the population it serves and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to injection drug users is grossly disproportionate to any benefit that Canada might derive from presenting a uniform stance on the possession of narcotics.”
An outbreak of an AIDS and Hepatitis C epidemic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside triggered the declaration of a public health emergency in the notorious neighbourhood in 1997.
The crisis forced health authorities to get creative in dealing with the complex issues faced by many of the neighbourhood’s residents who were afflicted with mental, physical and emotional health issues. The idea for a safe injection site was born.
In 2003, the federal Liberal health minister gave Insite a conditional exemption from drug laws, creating the continent’s first government-sanctioned safe injection site.
“The experiment has proven successful. Insite has saved lives and improved health without increasing the incidence of drug use and crime in the surrounding area,” the court found. “It is supported by the Vancouver police, the city and provincial governments.”
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper, however, decided it wanted to shut down the injection site and the government indicated it would not provide an exemption in 2008.
The Supreme Court issued a sternly worded reprimand for the minister.
“The minister must consider whether denying an exemption would cause deprivations of life and security of the person that are not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,” the court said.
“Where, as here, a supervised injections site will decrease the risk of death and disease, and there is little or no evidence that it will have a negative impact on public safety, the minister should generally grant an exemption.”