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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The Canadian government cannot constitutionally shut North America's only legally-sanctioned drug injection site because it is a needed health service, a judge ruled on Tuesday.
Drug addicts deserve access to health care treatment provided by the Insite facility in Vancouver in the same way that people who use alcohol or tobacco get services, British Columbia Supreme Court Judge Ian Pitfield ruled.
Insite's supporters had gone to court to block any attempt by the federal government to shut down the facility, which requires a special exemption from Canada's drug laws to remain open.
The current exemption expires at the end of June. Ottawa has not said if it will allow it to remain open after that but hinted it would not. The U.S. government has urged Canada to close the facility, arguing that illegal drug use should not be sanctioned.
"Simply stated, I cannot agree with (the) submission that an addict must feed his addiction in an unsafe environment when a safe environment that may lead to rehabilitation is the alternative," the judge wrote in the 59-page ruling.
The court extended the exemption until June 2009, by which time the government could revise the drug laws to allow it to remain open indefinitely.
Addicts using drugs such as heroin and cocaine are given clean needles to inject themselves in a room supervised by a nurse. They can then go to a "chill-out room" before returning to the street.
Insite is modeled on similar facilities in Europe. While opponents of the program say it promotes drug use, its backers argue it has cut the spread of disease through shared needles, reduced overdose deaths and helped addicts seeking treatment.
The facility in Vancouver's drug infested Downtown Eastside neighborhood was initially opened in 2003 on a three-year experimental basis under the control of the regional provincial government health authority.
It was given extensions in 2007 and 2008 to allow continued scientific studies on its impact on the health of addicts and on the surrounding community.
Supporters say those studies have already shown Insite's benefits, but opponents argue the evidence has been inconclusive and resources would be better spent on increased drug enforcement.
Judge Pitfield said the philosophical divide between the sides was so large he doubted scientific studies would ever resolve the dispute.
Provincial authorities have said they spend about C$2.4 million a year to keep Insite open. Victoria, British Columbia wants a similar facility in that city, and some U.S. health officials are also considering Insite as a model.
Editing by Anthony Boadle