Revoke This Licence to Enable
The first step to cleaning up Canada’s worst neighbourhood is to scrap its abhorrent safe injection site
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 8, 2007

Don’t call Al Arsenault unless you are prepared to interrupt an awards ceremony. I recently tried but the retired constable was in Victoria receiving two meritorious service awards from British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor.

The first was awarded to Arsenault and two colleagues for a short documentary about car theft. The second recognized his work as a decoy capturing thugs beating up the elderly and helpless in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Barely a month earlier, their company, Odd Squad Productions, had won the ‘Excellence in Cinema for a Feature Film’ award at the New York Independent Film and Video Festival, this time for their most recent production, Tears For April: Beyond the Blue Lens.

For Al Arsenault, these awards are the culmination of 26 years being a beat cop in Canada’s poorest, most drug infested neighbourhood, 10 of which focused on making educational films about its squalid underside. Like other Odd Squad productions, Tears for April: Beyond the Blue Lens is a matter of fact yet deeply affecting documentary about the lives of several addicts on Vancouver’s Skid Row with April Reoch as its tragic heroine writ large. Already a mother and into drugs when she arrives on the skids at the age of 17, the young, part native addict remains there in a downward spiral of prostitution and drug addiction for the rest of her brief life.

Beyond the foul language, weeping sores, broken teeth and needle marked body, the film reveals the addict’s few shreds of dignity. April could have been your sister or mine.

The documentary was snubbed by the Vancouver Film Festival because, according to Arsenault, “They prefer ideology over art.”

New York picked it up but then unlike Vancouver where decriminalization and harm reduction are the prevailing orthodoxies, New York gets it. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health published in September, illicit drug use in the United States among 12-17 year olds has declined. Notably, use of the initiator drug marijuana by adolescent boys is down by 25%. This is good news for the U.S. because, as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, John P. Walters reminds us, “We know that if people don’t start using drugs during their teen years, they are very unlikely to go on to develop drug problems later in life.”

America is getting the message and so too is Britain where new laws allowing police to seize drugs and issue warnings has expedited case disposal and, according to BBC News, brought drug use to its “lowest in a decade”. Then there’s Sweden whose successes towards the goal of a drug free society have been achieved in part by controversial policies such as compulsory treatment.

In Canada where marijuana use among youth is highest in the industrial world and consumption of other drugs isn’t far behind, the Harper government’s recently announced National Anti-Drug Strategy is a promising start towards getting Canada back on the road to prevention, treatment and enforcement.

If the anti-drug budget is augmented by clearly articulated goals and a strategy for achieving them, results could soon appear. As these unfold, mandatory minimum sentences and drug courts will affirm that possession and dealing are against the law, something even judges like Justice John Gomery seem to have forgotten.

Canada’s National Anti-Drug Strategy makes no concessions to harm reduction or decriminalization measures. Nonetheless, its biggest problem will be the decriminalizers and harm reduction advocates who have bogged the country down in controversial practices involving needle exchanges, crack pipes and safe injections even though consultation with an experienced organization like Alcoholics Anonymous would quickly reveal such practices merely enable the addict.

The epicenter of this approach to drug addiction is Vancouver where Insite, a supervised facility in the Downtown Eastside where addicts can inject their illegally obtained drugs, is a flagship experiment in harm reduction and where its mayor recently proposed all drug addicts be given free substitute drugs. Here, opposition to harm reduction practices and safe injection facilities like Insite is routinely squashed, ignored or lambasted, though an observation that Insite seemed tantamount to “state assisted suicide” did manage to make it into the local press – not least because it was made by American broadcaster Dan Rather who was in town scouting out a tv special on the Vancouver Olympics.

The drug-addled stink that will rise from this issue during the 2010 Winter Olympics should alone give pause to reconsider Insite though, to thoroughly mix the metaphor, fur has already flown over its future. A paper published earlier this year by the Journal of Drug Policy and Practice challenges the harm reduction approach to drug addiction on both theoretical and practical grounds. Contrary to the findings of University of British Columbia studies extolling Insite’s benefits, “A Critique of Canada’s INSITE Injection Site and its Parent Philosophy” by Dr. Colin Mangham argues the facility has achieved few or no reductions in the transmission of blood-borne diseases, no impact on overdose deaths, and that the facility is used only sporadically. Any reduction in public disorder, says the 20 year veteran in the drug prevention field, resulted from the injection of 60 police officers into the area when the facility opened, not safe injections at Insite. Moreover, while the harm reduction lobby takes us on wild goose chases, the really important stuff – the need to reduce drug use through prevention, help addicts through treatment and reduce drug availability through law enforcement - is marginalized even though in the cases of tobacco and alcohol, such approaches have had considerable impact.

Mangham’s analysis of the harm reduction phenomenon is particularly important. As manifest in the agencies, bureaucracies and the many politicians that surround all levels of government today, he says it is “a (libertarian) ideology viewing drug use not only as inevitable, but as simply a lifestyle option, a pleasure to be pursued, even a human right … (it believes) others should only be there to help reduce the consequences of your choice until if or when you choose to choose differently.”

Or, as Al Arsenault recently told the Province, “… a person can have one foot in the ditch and another in the grave and they go, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be judgmental, here’s your box of needles.’”

Yet few seem to have considered that others might have something to say about an ideology that relieves the user of any personal responsibility, destroys families and communities, costs taxpayers money, and is now spilling into other, formerly taboo, ‘lifestyle’ choices. Think prostitution, for instance, where increasing use of the term ‘sex trade worker’ is a step towards its normalization and ultimate legalization. Similarly, harm reduction is a step toward full legalization of drugs.

Even so, Mangham was pilloried in the west coast press though for anyone concerned about this issue, his paper is required reading. Presumably exhausted by the battle of the experts versus front line workers like Arsenault and Langham, few now are challenging Simon Fraser’s Garth Davies whose paper “A Critical Evaluation of the Effects of Safe Injection Facilities” gathers data about safe injection sites from around the world and concludes “none of the (positive) impacts attributed … can be unambiguously verified.”

And, certainly, no safe injection facility could have saved April Reoch, whose violent, banal and senseless death arrived not at the end of a needle, nor even at the hand of a john but as a bit of refuse on the garbage heap of humanity’s ‘lifestyle’ choices. Literally.

Whether it is an academy award for Tears for April or the Olympics, the world will soon have a wide open window on Vancouver. What will it see? The festering eyesore of degraded humanity ripe for exploitation by the latest serial killer called the Downtown Eastside? Or a city where pushers and users are in treatment or in jail and whose youth are hip to the dangers of drugs?

Insite’s licence-to-enable has been on life-support since Canada’s minister of health extended it last year but as a first step to cleaning up Al Arsenault’s old beat, it’s time to pull the plug. It’s about the 14 year olds, Minister Clement.

The memory of April Reoch deserves better.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century