Supreme Court ruling on Insite will mark turning point in city’s drug strategy

What’s the next step in the City of Vancouver’s fight against poverty and addiction? That question was very much in the air this morning at a meeting of the Four Pillars Coalition convened by Mayor Gregor Robertson.

It’s been almost 10 years since NPA Mayor Phillip Owen was forced out by his own party for championing the Four Pillars Strategy and a supervised injection site as the answer to Vancouver’s crisis of addiction and HIV infection.

The fate of Insite, opened in 2003 thanks to the leadership of Mayor Larry Campbell, will be settled once and for all May 12 by the Supreme Court of Canada. That’s the day the court will release its decision on an appeal, launched by the Harper Conservatives, of a BC Supreme Court ruling that blocked Ottawa’s attempts to shut the site down.

These days, Insite is turning away potential clients, particularly on welfare cheque days when the line-ups virtually stretch out the door.

The scientific analysis is clear: Insite has reduced HIV infection rates, overdose deaths, street disorder and drug crime. Now the Urban Health Research Initiative has concluded the site is also helping addicts obtain treatment and get clear of their addiction.

Dr. Julio Montaner, executive director of the Centre of Excellence for HIV/AIDS, told this morning’s meeting that the success of harm reduction strategies and HAART — highly active anti-retroviral therapy — have combined to produce dramatic drops in HIV infection rates. In effect, HAART treatment  is also preventing new infections.

But Ottawa, far from heeding the science, remains focussed on failed strategies and even seeks to shut Insite down.

The crisis that began with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s and took the lives of scores of intravenous drug users, was tackled first with needle exchanges. Then the focus became broader, with the supervised injection site at the centre of a four-pillars approach of prevention, enforcement, treatment and harm reduction.

With Insite in place, supported housing became a priority. Now, according to those advising Robertson this morning, it’s time for a new departure that is based on the latest research findings on urban health. For that approach to work, we may need a regional, rather than just a city perspective.

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, Montaner noted, it’s important to celebrate the successes. The city and its partners have saved countless lives and saved the province tens of millions of dollars in averted health expenditures. It’s impossible to turn back the clock.