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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Supporters took their fight to keep a site where heroin users can safely inject their drug to Canada's highest court on Thursday, arguing that the provincially sponsored facility was saving lives.
In impassioned pleas before sometimes skeptical judges, some supporters of Vancouver's Insite drug injection site, said the federal government would breach the constitution if it shuttered the facility.
The provincial government said the facility, the only one of its kind in north America, was crucial for Vancouver.
"We had in the 1990s addicts dying in the streets, hundreds, some years more than one a day," Craig Jones, lawyer for the government of British Columbia, told the Supreme Court of Canada. "Our front line workers were almost literally stepping over bodies on their way to work."
Vancouver set up Insite in its depressed and drug-ridden Downtown Eastside district in 2003, arguing that it was safer to allow drug users to shoot up in a place that had medical supervision than to let addicts die on the streets.
The federal government says the facility makes a mockery of its ban on dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine, and does not help addicts kick the habit, and it has taken the case to close the facility right through Canada's legal system.
"The law doesn't force people to use the drugs," said federal government lawyer Paul Riley. Addicts can choose not to shoot up and cannot blame the law for the unfortunate results of their drug use, he added.
Both the BC government and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users presented arguments that favored keeping the center open, although the two took different tacks.
John Conroy, lawyer for the users' network, said denying an addict the right to use drugs violated Canada's constitutional guarantee of life, liberty and security.
"Is your plea not more like decriminalizing drugs?" Justice Louise Charron asked.
"We limit our arguments to addicted persons," Conroy replied, noting that addicts would need a doctor's note to use the center without running foul of the law.
"So you go to the most lenient medical practitioner (to get a medical note), and away you go," a skeptical Justice Marshall Rothstein said.
Numerous studies have concluded that Insite has cut down on death from overdose and disease in Downtown Eastside, where there are about 4,600 intravenous drug users, and two supporters took their pleas to the street outside Ottawa's forbidding granite Supreme Court building.
"Let's not make another mistake. This is about life saving," said recovered heroin addict Dean Wilson, 55, a member of the board of the users' group. Wilson said he has been drug-free for the last 15 months after using Insite.
Crack addict Shelly Tomic, 42, said Insite provided hope.
"There's an addict in every family and in every single person, just waiting to get out," she said.
The court is not expected to be decide till late in the year. The case name is Attorney General of Canada et al. v. PHS Community Services Society, et al. (Case no: 33556).
Editing by Janet Guttsman