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Harper “Not committed ” to drug site

By Hempology | May 26, 2006

Backers of first supervised injection site say he should be — the centre’s saving lives

VANCOUVER — Proponents of Canada’s first supervised-injection site for heroin addicts say they don’t understand why Prime Minister Stephen Harper isn’t committed to the facility that appears to have saved lives and slowed the spread of diseases such as HIV.

Mr. Harper told a news conference yesterday that the Conservative government is still weighing the fate of the site, where addicts are allowed to shoot heroin or use other injection drugs under the supervision of health-care workers.

“I’m not committed to it,” he said in Vancouver.

“We’re asking various agencies, including the RCMP, to give us evaluations of that program as it comes to a conclusion, and we’ll go from there.”

The previous Liberal government approved the facility as a three-year pilot project. In September, Health Canada must decide whether to extend its approval.

Perry Kendall, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said there are already enough evaluations in peer-reviewed journals to suggest the site should be maintained.

“I would very much hope that no government agency would act to impede something that was showing health benefits and public order benefits.”

Dr. Kendall is supporting Victoria Mayor Alan Lowe, who wants a supervised-injection site in his city.

Mr. Lowe said Mr. Harper’s comments give him hope because the Prime Minister did not explicitly say the site should be closed.

“All urban cores are experiencing some drug-related problems — needles on the streets and people shooting up — and focusing on the harm-reduction method of trying to assist these people from a health perspective as opposed to just enforcement” is something to support, he said.

Mr. Lowe said he will talk to Mr. Harper about the issue today when the Prime Minister is in Victoria.

The Vancouver site has been supported by Mayor Sam Sullivan, former mayor Philip Owen, former mayor Larry Campbell, now a senator, and the Vancouver Police Department.

A study this year by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS concluded the supervised injection facility is neither increasing rates of relapse among former drug users, nor is it a negative influence on those seeking to stop drug use.

Viviana Zanocco, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which runs the site along with the Portland Hotel Society, said letters of endorsement from agencies and police have been forwarded to Health Canada.

Ms. Zanocco said she doesn’t understand why Mr. Harper would say the government is asking the RCMP for an evaluation of the site because the Mounties have nothing to do with it.

“I think the fact that we divert a lot of people to treatment, whether it be detox or counselling — that’s successful,” Ms. Zanocco said.

Mark Townsend, spokesman for the Portland Hotel Society, said there’s enough evidence to suggest the government would support the site as others have.

“I’d be shocked if they didn’t support it because the science is in.”

The main argument behind supervised injection sites is that they reduce the number of overdoses and curb the rate of HIV and hepatitis C infections. But the concept does not fit easily with Conservative tough-on-crime pledges.

The federal government does not fund the Vancouver site, but has provided $1.5-million to assess its effectiveness. Ottawa does have the ability to close the site because it relies on an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

In April, a spokesman for federal Health Minister Tony Clement said the government had no immediate plans to close the site. Eric Waddell said the Conservative government was keeping an open mind on the issue, and waiting for the study of the site’s effectiveness due this fall.

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