Canada’s New Liberal Government Endorses Vancouver’s Safe Injection Site

By May Wilkerson 01/26/16

Though in operation since 2003, Insite finally has federal authorization.

Vancouver Insite
Wiki Commons

Canada’s new Federal Health Minister, Jane Philpott, has offered her ringing endorsement of Vancouver’s supervised injection site, Insite, where drug users can go to receive clean needles and emergency medical care.

Dr. Philpott, a family doctor who founded a major HIV/AIDS charity in Africa, spent an hour at the site last week and said the visit was “extremely moving.” Her seal of approval represents a sea change in the government’s attitude towards drug policy, compared to the former Conservative government under Stephen Harper, who tried to shutdown Insite for years.

“[Visiting Insite] meant so much to me because I’ve been involved in responding to things like the HIV pandemic for many years in my career and I’ve followed the work of Insite,” said Philpott. “I’ve always known that what they do absolutely saves countless lives. It has a huge impact on people.”

Andrew Day, a Vancouver Coastal Health manager for Insite, said Dr. Philpott engaged with drug users and clinical staff during her one-hour visit last week. “From our perspective, we’ve seen a total pivot in terms of attitude, in terms of a willingness to engage with the research and the scientific community,” he said. “I think that is significantly important not just for Insite, but for health care in general. We don’t have to fight ideological battles; the focus is on what the evidence suggests will work, what the science says.”

Insite has operated in downtown Vancouver since 2003, but the supervised-injection service just received federal authorization last week. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government introduced the Respect for Communities Act, which has created a barrier for more safe-injection sites to open in Vancouver and other parts of Canada. Harm reduction advocates have called for the federal government to repeal the legislation, but Dr. Philpott said this has not yet been discussed.

Public health experts across Canada have expressed their support for repealing the law and setting up more safe-injection sites, which evidence shows can save lives, reduce the spread of HIV, and benefit entire communities. “Certainly, we would have to have discussions with Albertans, but the research that I’m seeing is that the social benefits to society when people have a supervised place to use rather than using on our streets as well as the economic benefits warrant further discussion,” said Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman.

In Montreal, Quebec, Mayor Denis Coderre reportedly plans to open four safe-injection sites, with or without federal approval. Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said he supports this move. “We’ve watched the Insite project with great interest and it works,” said Barrette last week. “We’re in favor of this type of initiative.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.