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InSite supervised injection site here to stay; other cities may now open their own

September 30th, 2011 · 26 Comments

Just had to mark this important day, when the Supreme Court ruled that Vancouver’s supervised-injection site will stay open and the federal government should be prepared to issue permits in other cities. (Stories here, here and here, from across the land.)

What a long road it’s been for those fighting for this. (And those fighting against it.)

This was the biggest story I covered for years in the early 2000s. It started when Mayor Philip Owen’s office started planning a new kind of policy to deal with drug addiction in the Downtown Eastside, in the late 1990s. It continued when I travelled to Frankfurt with a group of Canadian researchers and medical types to look at the supervised-injection sites there, spent hours visiting with people at the illegal injection site that operated temporarily, and was the first reporter into the legal one when it opened in September 2003.

It’s a testament to what it takes to accomplish something like this: Unswerving advocates who made it their priority for over a decade. Political administrations that backed in through subsequent electoral upheavals, starting with Mayor Philip Owen, who didn’t start out advocating for injection sites but ended up being a diehard supporter.

People with the political savvy to get police, the province, medical health officers, and more onside. Hours of meetings. Rallies and demonstrations and political actions to mobilize people along the way as the Conservative government emitted negative noises about it. And a public that, locally at least, continued to support it in opinion poll after opinion poll.

It’s actually exhausting to think of the effort that went into this. Some would say much of that was a tragic waste, that people shouldn’t have had to fight so hard to preserve InSite. Their energy could have gone into more useful projects. So could the money that went to federal-government lawyers.

In the end, though, it’s resulted in a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that makes the project invincible and paves the way for those who feel they need a site in their cities. And, I’d argue, it did the job that good debates do — drew people into the public discussion and ensured that a new piece of public policy had been soundly tested and withstood everything that was thrown at it.

It’s an emotional day for me to watch this conclusion. I am in awe of the people who were so dedicated to their causes.

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  • I am pleased with the decision. But I am troubled by the reality that some of the people who use this facility continue to commit a variety of crimes, most notably theft, to buy the drugs they inject in the legalized injection site.

    Am I the only one bothered by this?

    I don’t pretend to have the solution; but this is something that also needs a fix.

  • Andrea C.

    I am so very happy about this ruling, I’m almost crying. A big step towards treating some of our sickest citizens like human beings and not trash.

    P.S. Dear God, Geller, you really are a fatuous, pompous ass. I just had to (finally) say it out loud.

  • Erin Green

    No Michael, you are not the only one bothered by that. Don’t be silly.

    I am so relieved that the fight for InSite is finally over, I nearly cried.

  • Everyman

    As envisioned by Phillip Owen it was the Four Pillars strategy. I can’t imagine the current council being much interested in the law enforcement pillar, when the likes of David Eby (failed candidiate for a Vision slot in ’08) are ready to squeal in terror at anything that involves the police taking action.

  • Mary

    It’s complicated. However, it makes no sense to emphasize the enforcement pillar while so little is being done on the prevention and treatment pillars. I would advocate for the next incremental move to be regulated access to drugs for addicts. At least then they wouldn’t need to steal to support their addiction. I believe we need to understand the outcomes of the NAOMI trial and continue to base policy on real evidence of what actually improves lives – of addicts and the larger community.

  • George

    My wish is that we took care of our seniors and children from poor situations as well as we care for the illegal drug addicts.. when did society get so messed up.. we enable the illegal drug users and our poor seniors, and school kids that are trying to be productive members of society, go without proper nutrisian, clothing and housing..

  • George

    opps spell check..nutrition..

  • Bobbie Bees

    George, that’s the problem though. You can’t fix one part of society without fixing the others. Those school kids that cause you pangs of sorrow, to bad some of them will turn out to be the next batch of junkies.
    Those seniors that cause you such great concern, well they had a pension, or should I say some savings tucked away in the stock market that went belly up.
    Those junkies that you deride so much, well, they used to be those kids that lost out big because you wanted government to cut you taxes so we could compete with China and Taiwan. Those junkies, well most of them will live long enough to be senior citizens. But we haven’t built enough subsidized housing over the last 30 years to keep abreast of the grey tsunami that’s coming. We didn’t build enough housing because everyone was demanding that government cut taxes so that we could be as well off as the Americans. Just sadly we were too stupid to see that by cutting up our social safety net we’re going to end up in as much trouble as the Americans.

  • George

    To be honest Bobbie Bees you have me pegged wrong…
    My brother was a junkie, he got addicted after a major car accident that broke every bone in his body 3 times….one leg ended up being pushed up into his body by 2 inches. His pain was incredible, and the drunk driver that hit him had no insurance. He became addicted to heroin to deal with the pain.
    He finally had to get clean by going to a strange city by himself and going cold turkey.. he had to leave all the triggers and familiar areas that he could score, far behind…that was 35 years ago..
    I personally quit a 30 year pot addiction, and trust me when you live with chronic pain I know you’ll do anything to kill the pain..pot is very much addictive. I was lucky Alex Tsakumis helped me get clean.
    I still live with debilitating pain but I have learned to manage my pain with healthy substitutions. Meditation, exercise etc…
    I’m a senior that due to my disability has no pension or money squirreled away. there are many like me.
    What frustrates me is the enabling of addicts.. I don’t see the the up side of insite. The stories I hear from addicts that sometimes use insite are not good…they tell me if they use insite just so they don’t get hassled by police…or for the feebies..
    I feel the money could be better spent on treatment, and as awful as it sounds I believe in forced treatment. The people I see that are beyond understanding their situations need to be helped…there isn’t rational thought process for some that are so far gone.
    To be really honest Bobbi it would shock you if you knew how much of the million dollars daily being spent in the DTES is wasted…you would be appalled, that is what I meant when I made my original statement…if the money were better spent, there would be many social ills that could be taken care of.
    Right now most of the money is being spent on unqualified staff paid union wages..people not trained in addiction treatment.
    As for cutting taxes, I don’t know how you got that from my comments, but I agree the safety net is being cut drastically…for example look what is happening to the developmentally disabled, their funding has been quietly been pulled over the last 5 years…and yet we are catering to the addicts by giving them fancy digs to do drugs and clean pipes to smoke crack…it just doesn’t make sense to for the Americans I’m not sure how they got into the conversation…but I agree we are in trouble…
    I know this sounds cold, but it appears that addicts don’t care if they live or die…I would love to see hard numbers on how many have actually gotten clean because of insite…hard numbers..they have NEVER been produced, but the win today guarantees more funding for those union wages doesn’t it..
    Your words seem to be a bit resentful towards the seniors, perhaps you should remember your parents and grandparent fall into that category…and some day it will be you.

  • Andrew

    Part of me was hoping for a big fed-prov showdown on this, right on the heels of the RCMP snub. But I recognize this outcome, while less entertaining, is far more beneficial. 🙂

    As an aside, I don’t know that the Harper Regime will drop the issue just yet. Expect it to play a role in forthcoming provincial health accord funding dance. May also result in a new round of Supreme Court-bashing, unfortunately (because, really, should I trust a politician more than a judge? I firmly believe the judge has the interests of the country at heart when they interpret our laws, but I don’t have the same belief in politicians).

  • Silly Season

    @Geller #1 @ Andrea #2 @ Andew #10

    While one may debate the “agenda” of the Harper government, I have long contemplated that they played this for their base. I think they will be quite rational in looking at this unanimous decision and letting it be, if not forever, at least till the next election cycle. They can be rather practical about these kinds of things.

    I agree that we are missing the other three legs of this stool. It will always be an incomplete success—and perceived as failure—by much of the population, until we can harness SOMETHING that removes the criminal activity from the equation as well as getting continuous (unboken) treatment for those who want it.

    Andrea, your rude and unhelpful remarks to Geller don’t help. One piece of the puzzle does not a sustainable solution make.

    So, keep the politics out of it and make the other stuff happen, if you want true rejoicing in the streets.

  • Silly Season

    @George #9

    Points taken. I would like to see a report of services on the DTES if for nothing else but to keep the close the loop.

    People fall through the cracks in the system all the time, I think. I also believe that while it’s nice to have well meaning staff, more health care professionals need to be part of the system—and a system it is.

    I too have heard the million dollar a day cost, whichin its most basic terms, is $6500 per day per agency, if the 160 agencies number holds up. So lets say that payroll takes 1/2 of that $6,500 per day . That would give 10-20, 25 people per agency a pretty good living. So that means we have 1,600-3,200, or 4,000 people employed in these agencies.

    Now how much of the remaining $500,000 goes to the client population? What is that number comprised of? How much is more overhead/ How much is medical and mental health service, housing, etc that directly benefits the addicted and mentally ill?

    Do these agencies all have some targets to reach each year? It’s such a mystery. I don’t know if there is a report that comes from any of them, that is publically available. Anyone know?

    If all these agencies were running together, and services were shared and consolidated, how much might end up going to more and better treatment for the ill?

    So many questions…

  • Silly Season

    Other numbers:

    $500,00 per day in services means $100 per day (based on 5 day week) for the the resident population which I think is around 5,000. So that would be roughly $2,000 per month per person.

    How is that money broken down? Does it include housing, food, counselling any health care (or is that another fund?).

    The DTES has had the same problems for 40 years. Something is not working. The neighbourhhood activists appear to not want physical change and fight to maintain the status quo—this means the junkies are sitting ducks for those who prey on them. The government, going back30 years, has taken mental health care facilities away, so that the addicted/mentally ill are left to get whatever services are provided at ground level. The non-profits down there are all over the map. How can you have 160 DIFFERENT organizations providing whatever service they do to 5,000 people?

    Impasse, indeed. Irresponsible behaviour, all round.

  • George

    @Silly Season
    This link gives you a starting point…the most glaring name in this article is Jim Green…follow his history in the DTES…that will answer many questions…then link these names Dan Small Jenny Kwan’s husband PHS..Libby Davis son Insite…it goes on and on..the incestuous relationship is unbelievable.
    This has been going on for years..

    Yesterday on CKNW Mark Townsand stated that 5000 lives have been saved at insite…really and if that is fact, why are many of the same faces still haunting the back alleys of the DTES…5000 really where are those success stories??

    In 2008 our most recent PB politician was hired after the election to PHS..since the how much money has been funneled towards the shelters run by PHS..its a shell game, and there is no accountability…but I have first hand knowledge that only the people that can further their agenda get help..whistle blowers or non conformists to the cause need not apply..

    Until a forensic audit is done we are in serious trouble…only the union trough eaters are benefiting..Even at the shelters, nurses should be employed…instead we have artists and musicians and friends of politicians…helpful.

  • George

    Silly Season,
    great points, and if take that same formula as what happened to the folks at Riverview when it closed down, look at what is happening to the developmentally disabled, their funding has been quietly been pulled back for years, group homes are closing. The exact same message that was used to close Riverview is being cited for the Group homes. These people are going to be housed like children in foster care..what happens when they start to get abused…they are the next generation of lost souls that will feed the DTES poverty pimps..mark my words..

  • Diverdarren

    The SCC may have made their ruling but I doubt the fight is over. The people against the concept of allowing/ paying to assist junkies break the law still have a say.

    The tax paying voters who want to see heroin addicts shooting junk forced back into the alleys and dark places need to strangle off the funding for Insite and the P.H.S.

    If these organizations take tax dollars for the work they do then they are answerable back to the people. I wonder if John Cummings Conservatives think our meager heath care tax dollars should be spent on junkies, or spent on real people, sick and in need.

  • Creek’er

    Great decision by the court that preserved the federal government’s power over criminal law, did not expand provincial powers through a novel reversal of inter-jurisdictional immunity and bolstered individual drug users’ right to life and security of the person.

    Kudos to the Court and to all the politicians, activists, researchers, advocates, and medical professionals who made this possible.

  • InSite!

    Thanqu Mayor Phillip. I hope you are enjoying a happy retirement.

    Our family never had the need for InSite but we had our problems . . .

  • Morry

    @ Geller #1
    “Am I the only one bothered by this?”
    No, I too have thought of this.

    I congratulate all those who fought hard for the InSite cause. … from Mayor Owen – InSite staff.

    But … is there a better way to help those who are addicted.

  • F.H.Leghorn

    @diverdarren #16: “meager health care tax dollars”. Meager? Wrong.

  • MB

    The figure that $1 million a day goes in to the DTES to help human beings cope is probably correct. No doubt there is some waste, but an audit would give those who see only “poverty pimps” ammunition.

    By comparison, the new stadium roof has/will cost $1 million a day over 563 days to keep the rain off beer-soaked sports fans. Of course, some will say this is an essential service. Others see it as pimping to sports.

    And the freeway madness called Gateway will cost $1 million a day for the next 16 1/2 years (irrespective of tolls, which will only offset the compounded interest on the debt), and will result a permanent increase in health costs related to car addiction.

    Humans, sports, cars. Which one should have priority? Which one should be relegated to the armchair critics bin for pimps?

  • George

    I would support a forensic audit for the poverty pimp industry, that benefits on the backs of the mentally ill and drug addicted…once an audit is completed the funds can then be better utilized, then we tackle the next battle.

  • It was great news when I heard the radio report about a 9-0 Supreme Court decision in favour of retaining just one tool, one strategy in an all important issue for our society.

    On the following day the CBC hosted a panel discussion on the pros and cons of safe injection. Appropriately, I thought, the lead in the discussion was a man who had injected at the site, and had experienced more than one overdose while injecting at the site. The point, of course, had to be made on radio: he was still there to talk about it.

    There was a panelist from an abstinence approach to recovering from addiction. Everyone was on the same page: we need all the blankets we can get. There is no one way that works for everyone. Each case is different and requires different approaches. The upstairs of InSite is a counselling centre. If you go, the same people that were in contact with you downstairs follow through with you upstairs.

    Those folks, and many others in our Historic District, are doing us a great service. They deserve our gratitude, as Francis quite correctly points out. The number of overdoses per day at the site was also cited and it was staggering. Each overdose, more or less, would have equated with a life lost if it happened on the street. That is a father, a sister, or a daughter that has another day to take control of their life and patch up some of the damage they have caused among their loved ones.

    The real victory for Canadians comes in the sober realization that we are NOT fighting the war on drugs.

    The two largest newspapers on the Lower Mainland ran my letter to the editors a few days ago suggesting that the flaw in the ombudsman’s bill is that it is building jail cells instead of housing with supports.


    I neglected to quote the number of homeless in our streets that are come straight from corrections.

    To Michael’s point, the answer to the query is probably not the one he is looking for. It comes from a 60 Minutes piece from my college years in the 1980’s.

    60 Minutes was in Amsterdam, a city whose urbanism would come to occupy much of my attention, and they were talking to a heroin user. That person was able to hold down a job and make some repairs among his family.

    But he also spoke of the importance of not having to get the drug on the street.

    This is the tough nut to crack. I’ve learned to use the term “mainstreaming”. If we want people with addictions to join the mainstream of society, then we can make it so that they do not have to be in contact with the criminal element in order to deal with the base need of their affliction.

    We as a society can decide that we are going to protect them against it.

    If there is reassurance necessary, then let’s just state it out right that there is nothing glamourous about the life of addiction. That’s why I am in favour of mixed neighbourhoods, by the way. Having addiction as part of the general social environment is a healthy way to immunize our children against a future mistake.

    It’s simple calculus to gauge the effects on crime, gang activity and money laundering. Fighting a war on crime is just as wasteful of our government resources as fighting a war on drugs.

  • This Supreme Court decision is indeed significant. Finally Vancouver can move ahead in a positive, constructive course. This decision allows us to pull together many of the disparate strings of the complex web that is this seemingly insurmountable world.

    In addition to the many advocates, we do need to also acknowledge Mayor Owen’s role in having the political courage to challenge the ‘system’.

    My hope is that Vancouver can now re-embrace the 4 Pillars, refine it and move ahead. The 3,600 units of social housing which was initiated 4 years ago, and is just now beginning to come on-stream, will provide a good beginning for one of the other pillars. Once these start to make a difference, perhaps the enforcement pillar can also come into play in a more humane and effective way.

  • The courage of Philip Owen to do the right thing is going to become one of those great parts of Vancouver’s history.

    I’ve always argued that a 5th pillar was missing: providing a buoyant neighbourhood economy right in the DTES. Our work has now shown us what happened there.

    At the very same time that the Freeway Fiasco was unfolding, “Strathcona” was born in planning parlance doing away with critical sections of the historic East End north of Hastings, and west of Gore.

    But that’s not all. Thirty years before that, at the time of amalgamation with Point Grey and South Vancouver, the Bartholomew Plan was commissioned. That plan brought into being the concept of a CBD (central business district); a core surrounded by an industrial belt; and a belt surrounded by garden lots and single family homes.

    That “warehouse zoning” came into being north of Hastings, in the False Creek Flats, and South East False Creek all the way up to Broadway. More detail here on the East End aspects:

    Coupled with the traffic that the Freeway That Was Never Built put on neighbourhood streets, the vibrant East End was decimated several times over.

    To the point that nothing else remained. So by the 1970’s & 80’s, when Federal moneys came available for building social housing, putting social housing in the destroyed areas of the venerable East End was the kind of de-facto action that no one would oppose.

    Problem we experienced at the charrette this summer is that walking in those streets is a bit like walking on the Moon. The warehouses and the social housing and the high volumes of traffic combine to make a macabre urban scene.

    Totally off the charts except for one, very important thing: Because it was platted in the 1880’s every “no place” is extremely walkable and right next to the next “no place”.

    To put it succinctly, there is a significant opportunity for neighbourhood regeneration that could put the final 5th pillar into place.

  • Good point Lewis 25. Healthy, viable neighbourhoods are critical in the DTES, but also everywhere in Vancouver. This needs to be a priority in the City.