There was elation across Vancouver on September 30th as the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Charter rights of people with addictions by ruling the federal government must provide an exemption to the Criminal Code’s drug provisions to Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection site. As an immediate result, many are announcing plans to establish such a facility in their community.
Insite opened as a pilot project in 2003 to address the extreme levels of overdose deaths in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. It was granted a special time-limited exemption from federal drug laws, but the Conservatives refused to say whether it would extend the exemption once it expired. Before the deadline arrived, Insite operators took the federal government to court. In 2007, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that parts of federal drug laws related to trafficking and possession were unconstitutional and gave the government a year to rewrite them. The court said the laws prevent people suffering from the disease of addiction from accessing such a service infringe on their right to life, liberty and security of the person. The federal government appealed this decision and, eventually, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Conservatives saw Insite as running counter to their law and order agenda which is now reaching its full force with their hugely problematic ommibus crime bill now before Parliament. In 2007, Health Minister Tony Clement announced a new strategy on drug use in Canada with the new policy focused on widespread arrest of drug users, in contrast to the old strategy of targeting dealers. Over 130 physicians and scientists signed a petition condemning the Conservative government’s “potentially deadly” misrepresentation of the positive evidence for harm reduction programs. Yesterday, I heard Vancouver’s Health Officer say she had never seen a case where so much evidence demonstrated the effectiveness of a health program, (Let’s remember that Clement was the Minister of Industry at the time that the Chief Statistician of Canada, Dr. Munir Sheikh resigned over the decision to cut the long form version of the census. He has been accused of misleading Canadians about Statistics Canada’s response to the census changes.)
Since yesterday, much of the media coverage on the story is describing the decision as a strong rebuke from Canada’s senior court to Harper’s crime agenda – one writer calls it “a slap in the face.” This is really the first good news we’ve had on this story since the Conservatives set out on its highly controversial path to right wing crime reform.
Some commentators are saying it will have an impact on the sex work Charter challenge: “In showing the court’s willingness to to use statistics and empirical evidence to upend government policy, the decision could spell trouble for other components of the Harper agenda, including tough sentencing measures that most criminologist’s oppose, and prostitution laws that critics say increase the danger of working in the sex trade.”