U.S. cities have taken note of Vancouver safe-injection site: conference
Published on 4 February 2008
VANCOUVER – Some of the toughest cities south of the border are watching Vancouver closely as they try to deal with hard-core drug addiction, say delegates at an international drug conference.
Deborah Peterson Small, of the New York group Breaking the Chains, said places like San Francisco and New York are taking note of the city with the only safe-injection site in North America.
“San Francisco has started looking at safe-injection sites as an experiment,” said Small.
“We hope that city governments in Baltimore, Newark and New Orleans that have significant problems with heroin and injection drug use will look to Vancouver as a place that provides a positive example of ways to reduce overdose deaths,” said Small, who was one of about 80 delegates at the conference called Beyond 2008.
The conference is one of several taking place around the world – but the only one in North America – that are sanctioned by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The conferences are intended to gather the best ideas to address the drug scourge, ideas which will be submitted to the UN this summer.
Members of Small’s group have been advocates for other U.S. groups “to look at Canada for different ways to approach the issue of drug abuse and adopt some of the harm reduction measures you’ve adopted here, including expanding needle exchange and having safe-injection sites.”
Small isn’t holding her breath that New York will have a safe-injection site soon but she said San Francisco may be the first American city to embrace the idea.
Authorities there are willing to “look at alternative approaches and harm reduction approaches,” she said.
Insite, the safe-injection site in the Downtown Eastside, began operating in 2003 and is funded by the B.C. government. It allows people to inject their own drugs under medical supervision as a way to reduce harm connected to drug use.
But the federal government hasn’t committed to keeping it open permanently, saying more research is needed into how such sites affect prevention, treatment and crime.
Recently, Ottawa gave Insite another six-month reprieve, meaning it can keep its doors open until next June under an exemption from Canada’s drug laws.
Susan Shepherd, manager of the Toronto Drug Strategy Secretariat, the city’s drug police office, said Canada’s largest city has also investigated Insite.
“There is a recommendation . . . that we should look to whether Toronto needs supervised inhalation or injection sites,” she said during a conference break. “We have not yet had funding for that.”
Toronto’s major drug problem, Shepherd said, involves people smoking crack rather than injecting drugs.
Jack Cole, a retired New Jersey police officer who used to work undercover, said the U.S.’s vaunted war on drugs has been a dismal failure.
“We know that if we legalize drugs we can take the violence out of the equation,” said Cole, who helped found Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
He says the group, comprised of retired cops, prosecutors, judges and others involved in law enforcement, now has 10,000 members.
Their idea is to legalize and regulate illicit drugs.
“Today, regulation and control is in the hands of the criminals,” he said.
Cole never made his views known before he retired, but now says he can speak freely, adding many police officers still working feel the way he does.
“Eighty per cent of law enforcement say they agree with this,” he said. “Only six per cent want to continue the war on drugs after they talk to us.
“They are so concerned about being labelled soft on drugs and soft on crime that they don’t talk to their peers about what they really believe,” he said.
But not every delegate at the conference shares Cole’s attitude.
Kevin Sabet, of Project Sundial in St. Petersburg, Fla., says his group opposes legalization and regulation.
“The reason why I’m opposed to legalization and regulation is that we have a hard enough time with our two legal drugs – alcohol and tobacco,” Sabet said.
“And they are used more than the other drugs combined because they are available and accepted by society.”
He said authorities in “emerging countries” and in African-American communities in U.S. inner cities “can’t believe anybody is talking about legalization or regulation.
“Go to African-American communities in the U.S. inner cities and bring up legalization and watch their reaction.”
Sanhoh Tree, of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., said the safe-injection site is a good idea although it doesn’t solve the problem of where the illicit drugs come from.
“But at least (the site) has provisions to keep people from overdosing, which is a very good step.”
He said the more U.S. officials fight their war on drugs, the more valuable the drugs become.
“Our politicians want to look tough but being tough is not the same as being effective,” he said.