Vancouver plans first legal safe-injection site in North America

Friday, June 27th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) _ Canada will open North America's first legal safe-injection site for drug addicts later this year, a decision that drew swift criticism from White House drug czar John Walters.

The so-called ``shooting gallery'' will be federally funded, a 12-seat facility where addicts will be given the equipment they need to inject safely under the supervision of nurses, said Viviana Zanocco, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which will run the program.

It will open in September in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, an impoverished neighborhood known for crime and drug use, under funding the federal government announced this week.

``They would shoot up under supervision,'' Zanocco said Thursday. After injecting, the users will be monitored in a ``chill-out'' room to check for overdoses, she said.

The site will be exempt from federal drug laws to allow heroin and cocaine users to use it without fear of arrest.

``It makes us the first health authority in Canada to have this exception that hopefully will allow us to establish scientifically whether supervised injection sites can improve health outcomes and reduce harm to drug users,'' Zanocco said.

Similar safe-injection programs have been set up in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia and Germany. While the sites are credited with reducing overdose deaths and the spread of disease, specialists say the effect on addiction rates is unclear.

Walters, the White House Director of National Drug Control Policy, said in a telephone interview Thursday the program shows an appalling indifference to addiction.

``Drug abuse is a deadly disease,'' Walters said. ``It's immoral to allow people to suffer and die from a disease we know how to treat.''

He also called the concept ``a lie,'' saying ``there are no safe injection sites.''

Canada already has irritated Walters and U.S. security officials with a proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security in the Department of Homeland Security, warned Thursday that such moves will bring tighter border controls against drug trafficking from Canada.

``We're concerned about the increased drug activity coming from Canada,'' Hutchinson said during a visit to Seattle.

The United States is ``adjusting as necessary our border inspections to address those concerns that we have,'' Hutchinson said. That means longer lines that slow the flow of commerce between the North American neighbors that share the world's largest trade relationship, worth more than $1 billion a day.

Zanocco called the safe-injection program a way to help addicts begin rehabilitation. The federal funding of $900,000 requires a government research program on drug use.

Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said allowing addicts to inject at supervised sites will reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, while protecting them from arrest on the streets.

``It is simply a public health initiative to do what's logical and compassionate and effective,'' she said.

About 4,000 addicts live in the 15-square-block Downtown Eastside, which has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.

Mayor Larry Campbell, a former police office and coroner, won election last year on a platform that promised safe injection sites as part of a ``four pillar'' drug policy involving treatment, prevention, harm reduction and enforcement.

Vancouver's police department was criticized by Human Rights Watch in April for a crackdown on drug dealers in the area. Police denied targeting users, saying they focused on dealers, but critics said the crackdown would alienate drug users from social services, leading to an increase in disease and death.

Livingston said creating safe-injection sites was a positive step, rather than going soft on drug use. She worries that opponents will create obstacles to its proper establishment.

``We'll be watching to make sure that it isn't put forward as a program that's designed to fail, that it isn't so restrictive that the people who you want to come in don't come in,'' she said.

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