Insite Medical Research Facility or Drug Abuse Haven

UN warns Canada:
Safe injection sites, needle and crack pipe exchanges, violate international law

Vancouver’s safe injection site Insite is back in the news again, but this time, it’s the United Nations drug control agency that is leading the criticism.

According to Zhu Li-Qin, head of the Convention Evaluation Section of the UN International Narcotics Control Board, Canada is violating international drug control agreements by enabling otherwise illegal drug use at the supervised location in Vancouver. “In a way, [Canada] is encouraging illicit trafficking,” Zhu said in a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun. “Traffickers are searching for markets, and a [supervised site] serves as a small market where people go and legally inject drugs.”

In its 2006 report, released earlier this month, the Control Board expressed alarm over the continued existence of the facility, as well as reports of drug-enabling programs elsewhere, such as taxpayer funded crack pipe distribution in Ottawa. “The Board is seriously concerned that several cities in Canada, in addition to the heroin injection site in Vancouver, have planned to distribute drug paraphernalia, including ‘crack’ pipes, to chronic users,” the report reads.

Opened in September of 2003 in Vancouver’s downtown east side, Insite provides drug users with a place where they can openly use their narcotics without fear of arrest. A public health nurse is present at all times to provide medical care for those who need it. It’s a good thing too, because according to Insite records, more than 500 users have overdosed on the premises since its opening.

Article Four of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs says that signatory countries must ensure that drugs are used only for medical and scientific purposes. Insite operates under a special “medical research” exemption from Health Canada shielding those who use it from prosecution. This exemption was set to run out in September 2006, but was extended until December 2007 by Health Minister Tony Clement.

The “medical research” aspect of the project if true would exempt Insite from the provisions of the treaty as well as the criminal code. But is there really legitimate medical research being conducted?

There are two possible medical issues that Insite users could provide valuable data on the long term effects of drug abuse, and the effectiveness of various therapies in the treatment of chemical addiction. Insite is not contributing to either of these subjects. Although information on treatment options is made available to Insite’s users who seek it, those who do not which is most are left alone. Those who do go into treatment, moreover, are not properly tracked as a separate cohort by researchers to determine the difference in outcomes between them and others who enter into similar treatment from other places, and those who do not go into treatment are not tracked at all. What exactly is the unique “medical” benefit being provided by Insite that is being studied then? The answer is: there is none.

Of course, this does not mean that there is no ongoing research being conducted as part of the Insite experiment there is. But this research focuses primarily on local crime statistics and the character of the neighbourhood Insite services. For instance, when arguing for keeping the facility open last year, supporters claimed that Insite “reduced the number of people injecting in public and the amount of injection-related litter in the downtown eastside.” This claim was based on a 2004 paper published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal that reported that “(t)he opening of the safer injecting facility was independently associated with improvements in several measures of public order, including reduced public injection drug use and public syringe disposal.”

The claim was exaggerated. The CMAJ report did not attribute the reduction in public drug use and volume of injection-related litter to the opening of Insite. It merely noted the correlation between the two. (In fact, other law enforcement strategies were undertaken during the same time period.) But this is not the point. What matters is that, as important as the information may be, studying how many people use drugs publicly, or the number of needles found in public parks, is not legitimate medical research.

Supporters of Insite also claim that a second study, entitled Impact of a Medically Supervised Safer Injecting Facility on Drug Dealing and other Drug-Related Crime shows that “rates of arrest for drug trafficking, assaults and robbery were similar after the facility’s opening, and rates of vehicle break-ins/theft declined significantly.” A closer reading of the report reveals that these claims are also exaggerated. But again, even if they weren’t, tracking the “rates of arrest for drug trafficking, assaults and robbery” can hardly be described as legitimate medical research.

What’s really happening is this: There is a small but strong segment of the population who want to legalize the trade and use of drugs in Canada. We’re not talking about marijuana here, but heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, and other dangerous and highly addictive narcotics. The problem is that the majority of Canadians, quite rightly, are opposed to legalization, so rather than pushing for a change in the law, they circumvent both it and the democratic process by initiating “experimental programs” under the guise of “medical” or “health” research. It’s a thin faade that does not standup to scrutiny however.

Which is precisely why the UN is warning Canada that it is ignoring its treaty obligations, and breaking international law. As Melvyn Levitsky, a member of the Control Board, says: “Although we understand the compulsion behind these sites, the (treaty) says drugs are supposed to be used for medical or scientific purposes – not for getting public nuisances off the streets.”

Which begs the question if a body as willfully blind and as bad as the United Nations often is isn’t fooled by this subterfuge, how is it that our own politicians are?

Maybe we should be asking what our politicians are smoking instead.