Vancouver’s Controversial “Safe House” for Drug Addicts

Posted on February 16th, 2010

For seven years, Vancouver’s “safe house” for drug addicts has been the centerpiece of a controversial social experiment. Kevin Johnson of USA TODAY writes that just blocks from the city’s picturesque waterfront—the colorful backdrop of the Winter Olympic Games—is a small storefront where addicts come with their illegal drugs, register their name and substance of choice (usually heroin, speed, morphine, and other injectables), and use all they want.

Users are simply required to inject themselves under the supervision of nurses who provide clean needles, alcohol swabs and a protected place to use. The safe house is the only facility of its kind in North America and has won the support of local political leaders and the Vancouver police.

Mark Townsend, spokesman for the facility known as Insite, says it has helped prevent needle-borne illness and overdose deaths on the city’s East Side. "Before this place opened, people were dropping dead all over the place," Townsend says.

Yet it remains the target of attacks from factions of Canada’s Conservative federal government, which believes Insite encourages drug use and accelerates a debilitating cycle of addiction.

Last week, the federal government announced it would take its case to the Canadian Supreme Court to overturn a January ruling by a British Columbia appeals court allowing the facility to remain open.

Liz Evans, executive director of the community group that operates Insite, says its long-term survival depends on changing more traditional philosophies about addiction and law enforcement’s role in controlling drug use. Evans and Townsend are taking advantage of Vancouver’s place on the world stage as host of the Winter Olympics to make their case.

"We’re not afraid to show what we have here," Evans says. "We have come up with a creative way to manage people who have been pushed to the margins of society."

Vancouver Police Constable Lindsey Houghton says it’s not unusual for officers to refer drug users they encounter on the street to Insite. "Our primary focus is public safety," Houghton says. "And our department is in favor of any legal measure that promotes harm reduction."

Former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, one of Insite’s most vocal supporters, says drug addiction should be classified as a "disability" and that addicts should be managed much like people who deal with more traditional physical and mental illnesses. "The last thing we should be doing is hiring people with guns to chase these people around," Sullivan says.

Inside, the "injection room" looks more like a community clinic. A nurses’ station overlooks 12 cubicles where addicts remove their drugs from plastic bags and bottles to begin preparing syringes provided by the nurses.

The nurses are not authorized to inspect the drugs or perform the actual injections. They are there, Evans says, to ensure that addicts are using clean equipment and to intervene in the event addicts overdose.

There are nearly 500 injections performed each day at Insite, and last year there were 484 "overdose interventions," none resulting in death.

Anthony Poindexter, 43, a heroin addict, calls the facility a "lifeline." "I would probably be dead if it wasn’t here," he says. "I’ll bet a lot of people who’ve come here for the Olympics have never seen anything like this."

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