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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The Canadian government must allow Vancouver's Insite facility, North America's only sanctioned drug-injection site, to remain open, a provincial appeals court ruled on Friday.
The facility allows addicts to use their own illegal drugs under supervised conditions, and is the focus of a battle between the federal government, which wants to close it, and local health officials, who say it saves lives.
In a split decision, the British Columbia Court of Appeal rejected Ottawa's bid to end Insite's special exemption from federal drug laws, which has allowed it to operate on a medical trial basis since 2003.
The appeal court's majority upheld a lower court ruling that addicts needed Insite as a medical service, and that the province of British Columbia had the right to keep it open even if the federal government did not like it.
Insite is in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside area which is one of Canada's poorest neighborhoods, with one of country's highest rates of HIV and AIDS, diseases often spread by injection drug use.
Insite and the social and drug problems of the Downtown Eastside are expected to come into the world's media spotlight next month when Vancouver hosts the Winter Olympics.
"The health crisis sparked by illegal drug use in the central core of Vancouver demonstrates starkly the need for a practical response to the reality that people are obtaining drugs, using them, and becoming addicted despite a national effort to control their use ... and avoid their abuse," Justice Carol Mahood Huddart wrote in the appeal court's ruling.
Insite's supporters, including local police, say medical studies show it helps addicts by reducing overdose deaths and giving people better access to services to help end their drug addictions.
"It's a good way of slowing the spread of disease. This is a good day," said Dean Wilson, who has fought his own battles with drug addiction and help to found Insite.
The Conservative federal government argued Insite should be closed because the science supporting it was inconclusive, and there was an obligation to uphold the country's drug laws.
The appeals court's dissenting justice said Ottawa had a responsibility to protect the public from illegal drugs.
The U.S. government has pressured Canada to close Insite.
Ottawa was disappointed with the ruling, but could not say yet if it would be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, a spokeswoman for federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said.
Insite's supporters urged Ottawa not to appeal, and said the ruling should allow other Canadian cities to establish supervised injection sites. Insite is modeled on similar facilities in Europe.
"It's just in step with the rest of the world," said former Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen.
Reporting by Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson