VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - North America's only legal drug injection site in Vancouver is heavily used and widely supported, but probably has limited effect in cutting harm, the government said on Friday.
An official report said the Insite facility, designed to help addicts in a drug-infested neighborhood inject themselves more safely, operated at near full capacity but accounted for only about 5 percent of the area's total injection drug use.
"This limits the likelihood of significant direct impact," said a panel appointed by Health Minister Tony Clement.
The federal government has been weighing Insite's long-term future. Clement opposes the facility but said he wanted a panel to review scientific studies before deciding its fate.
Insite opened in 2003 in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood as a research project and needs an exemption from Canada's drug laws to remain in operation. Its current exemption expires at the end of June.
The U.S. government has urged Canada to close the project because illegal drug use should not sanctioned.
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. Backers say it has cut the spread of disease through shared needles, reduced overdose deaths and helped addicts seeking treatment.
Critics said the report showed the money would be better spent on drug prevention.
"Insite was a well-intended but failed experiment. It should be shut down," said Tom Stamatakis, president of the union representing Vancouver's police officers.
A Vancouver Coastal Health Authority spokesman said they were pleased the report had cited some positive impacts and were not surprised it also criticized the number of addicts it was reaching.
"We were always expecting some skepticism to come up around the site based on people's perceptions on it," Clay Adams said.
Editing by Alan Elsner