Five Years After Insite Decision, Federal Liberals can Change the Course of our Overdose Epidemic

Five years ago today, the Supreme Court of Canada delivered a decision that promised to chart a new path for health and drug policy in this country.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

On September 30th, 2011, before the first light of dawn, I joined dozens of community members who gathered outside of Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection site. All eyes were on a TV that had been rolled out onto Hastings Street as we eagerly waited for the SCC’s decision to be broadcast from Ottawa. The same community members who stood beside me that morning had spent years fighting the federal government’s repeated attempts to shut down the facility, at the time the only one of its kind in North America.

The Court heard volumes of evidence that clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of Insite – and supervised injection sites more generally – in preventing overdose deaths and reducing the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV.

Shortly after 6AM, word came that the SCC had rendered its decision: Insite would stay open. We erupted in cheers and tears of joy.

The Court upheld the constitutional rights of people who use drugs to access Insite’s life-saving health services. It also said that in the absence of a demonstrable risk to public safety, the federal exemptions required to run a supervised injection site should be granted.

Amidst a new and terrifying overdose epidemic fueled by fentanyl, the battle for more Insites continues.

For those of us gathered that morning outside of Insite, and those watching closely across the country, the decision sparked optimism that more life-saving facilities would open their doors.

Five years later, though, amidst a new and terrifying overdose epidemic fueled by fentanyl, the battle for more Insites continues. The promise of that Supreme Court decision has slowly and tragically faded.

Before the federal Conservatives were voted out of office last October, they’d introduced new legislation in the form of Bill C-2, the so called Respect for Communities Act, which placed new – and unnecessary – barriers to applying for a section 56 exemption to open a supervised injection facility.

The bill has had a deadly chilling effect. And what’s worse, despite a change in government, the law is still in force.

At the time of Bill C-2, fentanyl was just making its way onto the streets. Since that time, its prevalence has skyrocketed. Overdose deaths have also skyrocketed to the point that B.C. has declared a public health emergency. And yet, despite the obvious desperate need for them, no new legal supervised injection facilities have opened since the Insite decision came down (Vancouver’s Dr. Peter Centre did receive approval for its pre-existing facility).

Pivot has joined drug user groups and public health experts in in calling on the new federal government to repeal this ill-conceived and potentially deadly piece of legislation.

And though the government has introduced important new policies to expand harm reduction and addiction treatment interventions, the law that could have the greatest impact on curbing the overdose epidemic remains on the books. As a result, some cities await a decision on their application for a supervised injection facility in their community; many other cities have yet to even apply for an exemption because the process is far too onerous and expensive.

And so, five years after the Supreme Court’s decision protecting the health and safety of people who use drugs, Vancouver remains the only city with a legal supervised injection facility. Meanwhile, hundreds of people are dying as fentanyl and other powerful opioids that have taken hold in our communities. Each of their deaths were preventable.

The federal government can still change the course of the overdose epidemic gripping our country by repealing Bill C-2. It’s not too late to realize the hope we felt that September morning in 2011. The lives of thousands depend on it.