In a landmark unanimous decision that paves the way for drug injection sites in other Canadian cities, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled to allow Vancouver’s Insite clinic to remain open.
It also ordered the minister of health to extend the exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that allows the facility to operate “forthwith” and with no time limit.
In a 9-0 decision, the Court said the Conservative government’s objections to Insite were “grossly disproportionate” to the advantages of the program.
The judges sided instead with Insite, citing Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the rights to life, liberty and the security of person.
The Court was convinced by Insite’s proven ability to lower morbidity and mortality rates among drug addicts. It said not renewing the exemption would place addicts' Charter rights at risk.
The ruling, written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, also rejected the argument that provincial jurisdictional authority for healthcare trumps federal criminal justice legislation.
“I’m validated,” says Dean Edward Wilson, one of the plaintiffs in the case and an early Insite patient.
Wilson, a heroin addict from age 13, proclaims himself a success thanks to Insite and its related Onsite facility’s programs.
“I’ve been sober for two years because I used other parts of [the facility],” Wilson says. “Insite is a very small part of the building; the rest of it is a detoxification centre, transitional housing. I availed myself to all three floors and walked away clean two years ago. That’s my own personal victory.”
The ruling, however, rejected an intervention from the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) asking that Section 7 be extended to all drug addicts. The judges narrowly focused their ruling so that it “is not a licence for injection drug users to possess drugs wherever and whenever they wish. Nor is it an invitation for anyone who so chooses to open a facility for drug use under the banner of a ‘safe injection facility.’”
NDP MP Libby Davies, whose riding includes Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, calls the ruling a victory for the people who use Insite and a chance for the government to review its position.
“They have an opportunity to reflect on what this decision really means and to understand that when something is shown to work locally, when it has such broad support from the community, from the police, from business, from the city, from the province, that they should not be a barrier,” Davies says. “They should not stand in the way of an important service like that.”
During question period in the House of Commons on Sept 30, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq expressed the government’s disappointment in the decision but said it will comply with it.
“We believe that the system should be focused on preventing people from becoming drug addicts,” Aglukkaq says. “A key pillar of the national anti-drug strategy is prevention and treatment for those with drug dependency. As part of our strategy, we have made significant investments to strengthen existing treatment efforts through the treatment action plan. We will be reviewing the court decision.”
The government’s only option for overturning the ruling would be to invoke the Charter’s notwithstanding clause.
“I think that’s shocking that she’s disappointed by a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, to respect their evidence that says that Insite saves lives,” says Vancouver Liberal MP Joyce Murray. “Why is she disappointed by that? This place saves lives – that’s clear and simple. They need to accept this decision and move on.”