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Vancouver's safe injection site celebrates 10 years of saving lives

In this May 11, 2011 photo, registered nurse Sammy Mullally prepares a tray of supplies at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER - It has survived political venom and high court challenges that threatened to close it down, but two million injections later, North America's only legal supervised injection site is marking a milestone 10th anniversary.

InSite first began as a three-year pilot project to serve drug addicts when it opened its doors Sept. 21, 2003, in the centre of Vancouver's drug-infested Downtown Eastside.

Between 2004 and 2010 there were over 1,400 overdoses at the site, but health-care staff were able to successfully intervene.

There hasn't ever been an overdose death at the safe-injection site.

Dr. Patricia Daly, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority's medical health officer, said there's no argument that the safe injection site has saved lives over the last decade.

"The research found that there had been no increase in drug use among injection drug users, as a result of opening InSite, no increase in relapse among former users, no increase in crime in the neighbourhood surrounding InSite and a decrease in discarded needles and people injecting in public. All positive outcomes," she told a crowd gathered at the facility to celebrate the anniversary.

Daly said HIV diagnoses among drug injection drug users are significantly down and fatal overdoses in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood have dropped.

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake said the evidence of the value of InSite is clear.

"Supervised injection is an important component of our response to substance use and addiction." he said in a news release.

InSite has 12 supervised injection booths where clients are given clean needles and supplies to inject illegal drugs that addicts bring in on their own — drugs aren't supplied.

Liz Evans with the Portland Hotel Society, which operates InSite along with Vancouver Coastal Health, told the crowd that InSite is a place where life matters and those addicted to drugs are still valued as citizens.

"We're saying they have the right to stay alive while they have the opportunity to detox, or they can just live, with a quality of life that we haven't previously allowed them to live."

The site operated under special rules until 2008 when Stephen Harper's government attempted to end the exemption.

In 2011 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously to uphold InSite's exemption under the controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The health authority spends $54.7 million a year on services in the Downtown Eastside, including shelter and housing. InSite's operational budget is $3 million.

Proposed rule changes introduced by the federal government in June would make it more difficult for such facilities to remain open.

The bill would require community opinions to be taken into account in order to keep a site open, and would also need the support of provincial and municipal authorities.

Last week, doctors at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS wrote in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that the government bill seems to ignore evidence from a decade of experience in Vancouver.

"A large body of peer-reviewed research, published in leading medical journals, has documented various benefits of the program including reductions in syringe sharing and fatal overdoses, and increased uptake of addiction treatment," wrote doctors Thomas Kerr, Julio Montaner, Even Wood and Marie Zlotorzynska in the commentary.


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