Tories miffed, but will keep Insite open

Supreme Court dramatically derails part of Harper's tough-on-crime juggernaut with landmark ruling that Vancouver safe-injection site stays open.

Photo of Vancouver's Insite courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It was a ruling that delighted health advocates and disappointed Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and what it means for the eventual future of Vancouver's safe-injection site is unclear.

But for now, the centre will stay open.

The Canadian Press has the story:

OTTAWA -- The Supreme Court of Canada dramatically derailed part of the Conservative government's tough-on-crime juggernaut with a landmark ruling Friday that firmly supports a Vancouver safe-injection site for drug addicts.

Dour Tories did not attempt to hide their disappointment at the 9-0 decision that left the government no wiggle room, firmly rebuked the Harper government's crime agenda and set a precedent on the division of federal and provincial powers.

The court ordered the government to abandon its effort to close the Vancouver facility and to grant an exemption to protect Insite staff from prosecution for drug possession or trafficking.

"We're disappointed,'' Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at an event in Quebec City. "We have a different policy. We'll take a look at the decision but we will clearly act in respect and within the constraints of the decision.''

Harper said he would have to study the ruling further, but "obviously, it is going to lead to some change in federal policy in order to respect the decision.''

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq told the House of Commons the government was disappointed, but would comply.

Groups that backed Insite, including major medical organizations, hailed the ruling as a victory for evidence-based health policy over political ideology.

The justices agreed with Insite's supporters, who argued that closing the facility would violate the rights of addicts living in one of the country's most squalid neighbourhoods, Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside.

The ruling rejected the federal argument that the facility fosters addiction and runs counter to its crime-fighting agenda.

The ruling arrived after the Conservative majority cut short debate on its massive law-and-order omnibus bill, ensuring speedy passage of nine different crime bills that opposition parties had been able to block in previous minority Parliaments.

The Tories took aim at Insite in 2008 when then-health minister Tony Clement said the exemption for is staff should not be continued.

The court disagreed sharply.

"This limit is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,'' said Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who held the pen on this ruling.

"It is arbitrary,'' she wrote. "It is also grossly disproportionate: the potential denial of health services and the correlative increase risk of death and disease to injection drug users outweigh any benefit that might be derived from maintaining an absolute prohibition on possession of illegal drugs on Insite's premises.''

Insite supporters said peer-reviewed studies found the facility prevents overdose deaths, reduces the spread of HIV and hepatitis and curbs crime and open drug use.

McLachlin made clear in the ruling that the federal government has a right to set policy, but when policy is translated into state action and law the courts must determine their validity under the charter.

"The discretion vested in the minister of Health is not absolute; as with all exercises of discretion, the minister's decisions must conform to the charter.''

The ruling represents a significant setback for the Conservative crime agenda and could lead to the creation of similar injection sites in major cities.

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