Canada's Top Court Keeps Injecting Drug Use Site Open

Jon is a staff writer for Science.

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a “safe injection site” in Vancouver that aims to thwart the spread of HIV can continue to operate, providing a place for people to inject drugs under medical supervision and without the threat of arrest.

The federal government, including the minister of health, had argued to the court that the province-sanctioned facility, called Insite, should close because it violated the country’s laws about possession and trafficking of controlled substances. “The effect of denying the services of Insite to the population it serves and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to injection drug users is grossly disproportionate to any benefit that Canada might derive from presenting a uniform stance on the possession of narcotics,” the court wrote in its unanimous decision.

The “fabulous” ruling opens the door for an entirely new discussion, including the possibility of opening more sites and even providing pharmaceutical-grade opiates to users, says Julio Montaner, director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, who has supported Insite since its inception in 2003. “The federal government said abstinence is the best approach, and the court is saying if you stop supervised injections, you’re killing people,” Montaner says. He adds that if his son were addicted to heroin, he’d want him to stop using, but if he could not, “I’m going to say next best thing is to reduce the harm.”

Studies have shown that Insite has reduced overdose deaths and the risk of becoming infected with HIV and also led to increased use of addiction treatment programs. Insite kept its doors open during the court challenge and for now will continue to operate under an “exemption” to the federal substance control laws.

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