Canada's Supreme Court Saves Controversial Safe-Inject Clinic

By Jed Bickman 09/30/11

After a decade-long battle, a Vancouver clinic that allows IV drug users to safely shoot up is rescued by Canada's top court.

Users at the Insite clinic Photo via

This morning, Canada's Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot shut down a safe-injection clinic in Vancouver—the first legal facility of its kind in North America. Cheering crowds gathered outside the Insite drug clinic in the city’s Downtown Eastside today to celebrate a decision that marks the end of a drawn-out legal battle between the clinic and the government—with the clinic's survival now guaranteed. Insite provides a space where drug users can bring in their own street drugs and inject them in a safe, controlled setting, supervised by nurses. A study published this April found that overdose deaths in the neighborhood have dropped 35% since Insite opened its doors in 2003. Until now, the clinic has been operating thanks only to a series of legal exemptions. However, the federal government decided to fight the most recent exemption in 2008—and Canada's then-Health Minister Tony Clement declared to reporters that the clinic was “an abomination.” With the Supreme Court decision pending, the mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, wrote an open letter to the federal government to drop its legal proceedings, saying that “for many, access to Insite is literally a matter of life and death.” Mark Townsend, the executive director of Portland Hotel Society, which runs Insite, said that as well as preventing overdose deaths, Insite helps addicts consider rehabilitation and prevents the transmission of infections. Before Insite, he believes, “being an addict was a death sentence.”        

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.