Canada drug law contributes to the harm it seeks to prevent

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In a surprise ruling yesterday, the British Colombia Supreme Court supported Vancouver's experimental supervised injection clinic Insite - North America's first legal supervised injection site - and halted federal attempts to close the facility. That is very good news, but the ruling went even further.

Judge Ian Pitfield declared a key section of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act of no force and effect and gave Ottawa until June 30, 2009 to rectify the law because it conflicts with health concerns that constitutionally are a provincial responsibility, as well as conflicting with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The judge said drug addicts deserved the same kind of health care as those suffering from alcohol or tobacco addiction. Federal law, however, "forces the user who is ill from addiction to resort to unhealthy and unsafe injection in an environment where there is a significant and measurable risk of morbidity or death."

From yesterday's judgment by the B.C. Supreme Court:

  • "In my opinion, section 4(1) of the [Controlled Drugs and Substances Act], which applies to possession for every purpose without discrimination or differentiation in its effect, is arbitrary. In particular, it prohibits the management of addiction and its associated risks at Insite. It treats all consumption of controlled substances, whether addictive or not, and whether by an addict or not, in the same manner. Instead of being rationally connected to a reasonable apprehension of harm, the blanket prohibition contributes to the very harm it seeks to prevent. It is inconsistent with the state's interest in fostering individual and community health, and preventing death and disease."
  • "Section 4(1) of the CDSA threatens security of the person. It denies the addict access to a health care facility where the risk of morbidity associated with infectious disease is diminished, if not eliminated. While it is popular to say that addiction is the result of choice and the pursuit of a liberty interest that should not be afforded Charter protection, an understanding of the nature and circumstances which result in addiction…must lead to the opposite conclusion."
  • "While [alcohol and tobacco] are not prohibited substances, society neither condemns the individual who chose to drink or smoke to excess, nor deprives that individual of a range of health care services. Management of the harm in those cases is accepted as a community responsibility. I cannot see any rational or logical reason why the approach should be different when dealing with the addiction to narcotics. ... Simply stated, I cannot agree with ... Canada's submission that an addict must feed his addiction in an unsafe environment when a safe environment that may lead to rehabilitation is the alternative."

Insite is allowed to remain open under current drug laws for a year, even without a federal exemption.That year should give the federal government time to rewrite its laws to allow for medical use of illegal drugs if they are part of a health-care program, the  court said.

Download the judgement

B.C. drug injection site legal, court rules, National Post, May 28, 2008

Insite can remain open: judge, The Vancouver Sun, May 27, 2008

Tom Blickman, TNI