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Lawyers, doctors and addicts at public forum urge Vancouver to save Insite

Illustration by Karen Chan

Illustration by Karen Chan

"I believe this is an issue coming about our collective humanity," Portland Hotel Society director Liz Evans said at a public forum last night about Insite, the safe injection site that serves addicts in the Downtown Eastside. "People who have used substances to cope should not be viewed as different." She said that Insite does not encourage drug use, but allowed drug users -- who could be relatives, friends or neighbours of non-drug users -- to live with their addictions in a respectful manner. Referring to the federal government's efforts since 2006 close down Insite, she said, "Conservatives believe that some peoples' lives matter more than others". 

The forum last night at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema at SFU Woodwards on Hastings Street drew about 400 people, ranging from high school students to senior residents of the DTES. They gathered to hear speakers who defended Insite last week before the Supreme Court in Ottawa. 

Photo of Insite Supreme Court hearing video by Jenny Uechi

In between clips of video footage of the Insite court hearing from Ottawa, the speakers gave an impassioned defense of North America's only safe injection site from different perspectives on the issue.

Ethos Law Group lawyer Monique Pongracic-Speier said closing Insite would be unconstitutional and a violation of human rights, as it would force current Insite users to take drugs in dangerous situations -- in alleyways, at home alone -- and threaten their security of person, which is a basic entitlement guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Poet and VANDU founder Bud Osborne recounted of the overdose death of a First Nations woman and subsequent suicide of her husband that mobilized him to call for North America's first safe injection site. "If there was an Insite then, they would be here with us today," he said in an emotional tone. 

Dean Wilson photo by Jenny Uechi

Former VANDU president Dean Wilson said that it would be a "personal affront to the City of Vancouver" if the Conservative government was allowed to shut Insite down, given the widespread support for the facility among Vancouverites. He stressed the need for more safe injection sites in the Downtown Eastside, with its estimated 4,000 - 5,000 intraveneous drug users. VANDU board member Dave Murray, who said that Insite saved his life in past years, spoke of the desperate need for a safe injection site in cities like Regina and Saskatoon, which he visited on the way back from the Supreme Court case. 

On the public health benefits of the Insite, Dr. Will Small from the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS emphasized that HIV infection rates, overdose deaths and public disorder had gone down significantly since the site's opening. Showing a PowerPoint presentation of news clippings and charts, he spoke of how political ideology denied proven scientific evidence of the public health benefits of safe injection.

"Supervised injection has become mainstream in public health," said Maxine Davis, the executive director of the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation. She said she was grateful to see judges "blatantly critical" of the federal government's argument to shut the facility down, and said that the government may "regret the day it took Insite to the Supreme Court of Canada". 

During discussions at the end of the presentations, VANDU members said that if the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the federal government, they would take active "civil disobedience" and open a non-government sanctioned safe injection facility of their own, as B.C. nurse Megan Olsen had done before the opening of Insite. If the ruling was in Insite's favour, Wilson said it would open doors for a safe "consumption" site, which would allow for the safe consumption of non-intraveneous drugs such as cocaine.

As discussions came to a close, Evans urged the community to become engaged and to hold more public discussions on Insite in order to support its continued service. 

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