Safe drug-injection site can stay: Supreme Court of Canada

Fri Sep 30, 2011 12:37pm EDT
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By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Vancouver's Insite clinic, the only safe-injection site for drug addicts in North America, can stay open, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday in a landmark defeat for the federal government's tough-on-crime agenda.

The top court, slapping down the Conservative government with some harsh language, ruled unanimously that closing the site in the Pacific Coast city would threaten the lives of drug users and therefore violate their human rights.

The government, which says it is determined to cut crime, complained that keeping Insite open made a mockery of laws designed to stamp out illegal drug use. The federal Health Department had said it would not extend a special exemption to drug laws that allowed the site to operate.

The court ordered the health minister to maintain the exemption, saying to remove it would be an arbitrary decision that broke the principles of fundamental justice.

"It is also grossly disproportionate: the potential denial of health services and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to drug users outweigh any benefit that might be derived from maintaining an absolute prohibition on possession of illegal drugs on Insite's premises," it ruled.

Insite operates in Vancouver's poor Downtown Eastside district, one of the most deprived urban areas in Canada. The clinic was set up in 2003 to allow intravenous drug users to shoot up in a place that had medical supervision.

"Although we are disappointed with the Supreme Court of Canada's decision today, we will comply. We believe that the system should be focused on preventing people from becoming drug addicts," said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

A study in the Lancet medical journal this year said the site had cut drug overdose deaths by 35 percent in the area. Police and local officials had campaigned for it to stay open.   Continued...

<p>A poster shows how to use a syringe safely inside a safe injection site for drug addicts on Vancouver, British Columbia's eastside August 23, 2006. REUTERS/Andy Clark</p>