A victory for common sense around harm reduction: Vancouver’s injection site wins a court battle

Insite supporters can breathe a sigh of relief. On January 15, 2010, the B.C. appeal court upheld a 2008 ruling by the province’s Supreme Court that allows the supervised injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to stay open.

Liz Evans, the executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, which runs Insite, told The Globe and Mail: “Let’s hope [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper doesn’t waste any more taxpayers’ money by taking this to the Supreme Court.”

The debate over the future of Insite has been passionate in the two years since the Canadian government, in the face of convincing research, began questioning the validity of a harm reduction approach to injection drug use.

Thomas Kerr and Evan Wood, research scientists at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, accused the federal Conservatives of politicizing science in their straight-laced and passive-aggressive approach to Insite’s work with drug users. “This government may already have garnered a reputation for being the most antiscience government in Canadian history,” they wrote in a sharply worded article published online in April 2008.

Doing exactly what it was set up to do

Kerr and Wood charge the government with attempting to “cloud science” and “manufacture uncertainty.” In the Tories’ get-tough, war-on-drugs strategy, they aver, there is no room for sound public health strategies like harm reduction — despite the wealth of scientific evidence to support these interventions, including more than 20 studies by the authors which have appeared in major medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet, and the British Medical Journal. This plethora of research shows that Insite is doing exactly what it was set up to do:

  • contributing to reductions in the number of people injecting in public and the number of discarded syringes on city streets,
  • helping to reduce HIV-risk behaviour and saving lives that might otherwise have been lost to fatal overdose,
  • achieving a 30% increase in the use of detoxification programs among Insite users in the year after the site opened,
  • not increasing crime or leading others to take up injection-drug use.

Moreover, Insite appears to be cost-effective and is popular among the general public. Within the strict limits imposed on it, Insite just seems to work. Undeterred by mere facts, however, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose strong opposition to “deviant behaviour” is well known, claims to remain unconvinced. Neither the overwhelming scientific evidence nor Insite’s articulate defenders — not even the largely positive conclusions of the government’s own Expert Advisory Committee — seem to have swayed this staunch defender of prudence and propriety and his loyal supporters.

Ideological warfare

Given the significant disagreement on this issue, perhaps the very term “harm reduction” is the problem, as A.I. Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science suggests [1]. The imprecise application of this term and its use as a euphemism for drug legalization have “sufficiently inflamed … drug warriors that they cannot have a rational discussion of even the underlying concept, let alone how harm-reduction strategies might be implemented.” Leshner advocates the avoidance of ideological intensity. “Let’s get on with studying specific strategies to protect the public health and ensure social well-being and give up this term that only gets in the way, even if it does make sense.” This well-meant and seemingly pragmatic dismissal of ideology, so characteristic of certain debates within American elites, is itself highly ideological. Excellent solutions are brought forward in print, and they stay securely in print. There are still no safe injection sites anywhere in the United States.

From a Canadian perspective, Bernadette Pauly of the University of Victoria reminds us that harm reduction, however well implemented, is only a partial solution [2]. Conceived within a broader social justice context, harm reduction strategies should be part of a comprehensive approach to reducing social inequities, providing accessible health care, and improving the health of those who are street-involved. Pauly is proposing to move from print to political project. All well and good, but then we confront the by-one’s-own-bootstraps catechism of the dogged Harperites and their extraordinary ability to mobilize the fear and petty prejudices of Canadians in support of their retrograde policies.

Scientific arguments are insufficient in themselves

In a brilliant commentary on the ideological warfare behind the war on drugs, two Canadian sociologists take on the sententious rhetoric that labels harm reduction advocates as “legalizers” in the guise of scientists and public health professionals [3]. Because the right-wing attack comes from either the intractably convinced or cleverly hypocritical stance that abstinence, prevention, and enforcement are the only acceptable and morally legitimate solutions, harm reduction’s muted stance on morals, rights and values prevents proponents from engaging criticisms of this nature in terms other than the evidence or science. The case of Insite, the authors argue, demonstrates the value of asserting human rights claims that do not rest on evidence per se. Scientific arguments are insufficient in themselves to move beyond the status quo on drugs.

They conclude, “Without commitment to ‘strong rights’ and the sovereignty of users, harm reduction sentiments are easily subverted to a technocratic governance agenda. Against the accusation that we are really ‘legalizers’ harm reduction advocates need not dispute the label but rather the suggestion that opposition to the drug war is somehow irresponsible, dishonest, or immoral. Respect for human rights moves harm reduction past the confines of a scientific project — which has not been well respected outside academic circles — toward a generative programme for replacing prohibition with policies reflecting the costs and benefits of drug use and the costs and benefits of formal intervention.”

Here, surely, is the way to proceed. Palaver and posturing should not get in the way of real progress, which will be measured in terms of real lives and the difference that intelligent and compassionate social programs can make. The decision of the BC Appeal Court in favour of Insite is a victory in what has become a culture war waged on the backs of people who have the least power in this country.

References

1. Leshner AI. By now, “harm reduction” harms both science and the public health. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2008 Apr;83(4):513-14.

2. Pauly B. Harm reduction through a social justice lens. Int J Drug Policy. 2008 Feb;19(1):4-10.

3. Hathaway AD, Tousaw KI. Harm reduction headway and continuing resistance: insights from safe injection in the city of Vancouver. Int J Drug Policy. 2008 Feb;19(1):11-16.

Photo credit: cc licensed flickr photo by audreyjm529


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