VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — British Columbia’s top court on Friday rejected an attempt by the Canadian government to close North America’s first safe injection site for drug users.
The site, where people can inject illegal drugs with clean needles under a nurse’s supervision, has operated since 2003 under a temporary exemption. It was opened as part of a harm-reduction plan to tackle an epidemic of HIV-AIDS and drug overdose deaths.
The exemption was scheduled to end in 2008, but a trial court allowed it to remain open. The Conservative government appealed Justice Ian Pitfield’s ruling last year that allowed Insite, as the site is known, a constitutional exemption from Canadian drug laws.
In the May 2008 ruling, Pitfield said Insite — operated by the Portland Hotel Society in conjunction with the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority — provided important health care resources to addicts.
The British Columbia Court of Appeal rejected the federal government’s bid to overturn the lower court’s ruling that said Insite provided a needed medical service.
The three-member appeals court panel, which was split in its ruling, said Insite is a health facility and falls under provincial and not federal Canadian jurisdiction.
“Like palliative care, it is a form of harm reduction with benefits for both the patient and the community,” said Justice Carol Huddart in the split decision. “The lure of safe injection gets those addicts into Insite so health care may be delivered.”
The Canadian government had no immediate comment on the decision or any possible appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Insite spokesman Mark Townsend said the ruling means “chronic addiction is not a death sentence.”
Insite sits in the middle of Vancouver’s notoriously squalid Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood riddled with addicts, prostitutes and people carrying conditions such as HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C.
Insite opened in September 2003 under the approval of the former federal Liberal Party government. That approval made it exempt from drug possession and trafficking laws.
Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS, said the decision sends a clear message that Prime Minister Stephen Harper should abandon “his draconian, ideologically motivated public health policy-making.”
Montaner, who is also president of the International AIDS Society, said he has had discussions with officials in Montreal, Toronto, Victoria, B.C., and San Francisco about opening clinics modeled after Insite.
“There is tremendous interest in a number of cities around the world based on the fact that not only have we piloted this initiative but the supervised injection site is the best studied in the world,” he said.
Insite supervises about 500 injections a day. Addicts shoot up at 12 booths with mirrors on the walls so nurses on a raised platform can see them.
There have been about 1,200 overdoes since Insite opened. No one has died.