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Some Insight into Insite

Friday, October 24th, 2008

The riot squad marched past me in pairs on Wednesday. About forty officers, their faces tight and emotionless moved to pull down the tents and stage erected in the middle of East Hastings Street adjacent to Insite, the supervised, drug injection facility in the downtown east side. Fifty more officers kept the curious from intervening.

Insite, is a harm reduction tool in a ‘four pillar’ approach to the drug problems not only in the downtown east side but across the city: those pillars being prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and enforcement. But from what I see in the downtown east side, I wonder whose harm is being reduced?

Apparently, the organizers of the party supporting the Insite facility failed to obtain permits from the city to block two lanes of Hastings Street and to hold a concert at the tail end of rush-hour.

It looked like a classic confrontation between the police and the rag-tag community in the neighbourhood- two monolithic forces clashing over drug policy and who really runs the ‘hood. But not everything is as it seems.

While a few local residents were not so enthusiastic of the obvious police presence with their plan to break up the street barbeque and concert, a few others voiced their support for closing Insite down.

Despite what one might believe, the police in Vancouver actually support Insite, much to the frustration of some residents who don’t. The VPD disagrees with those who say Insite is a breeding-ground for continued dependence on illicit drugs: the RCMP, the current federal government and its outspoken Minister of Health, not to mention the Bush Administration in Washington, D.C.

But it’s not like the Vancouver Police Department stands alone. Both the city and the province support Insite. The entire medical establishment backs the effort. Partisan political support crosses party lines- excluding the Conservatives in Ottawa- with the NDP, Liberal and Green Parties in lock-step with each other on the issue.

While I take no issue with whether Insite is effective or not, I do start to wonder what’s up when almost everyone in authority appears to agree that it’s the only solution. Everything’s too neat, too tidy. Does Insite do what its supporters say it does? Whose voices are being silenced by the deafening and coordinated call for its continued operation?

So since our establishment fails to have this debate, someone has to ask these questions because the reality of the downtown east side is that the entire neighbourhood and its issues have been swept under the carpet for decades too long. Successive, well-meaning governments of all political stripes have fostered a flourishing poverty industry but relatively little money actually gets to those in need.

Where services ought to be provided honestly and without ulterior motives, bean-counting still reigns supreme. Unfortunately, bean-counting is what gets the cash so statistics come before services. Playing second-fiddle to an accountant when it’s your life on the line… what a wonderful path to recovery.

Whether they supported Insite or not, every activist and community member I talked to agreed that there are not enough resources to handle the demand for rehabilitation and re-location; the Treatment pillar of the Four Pillar approach seems to have been forgotten. Imagine deciding that you want to break a serious life-threatening addiction only to find that you have to wait four months for a detox space?

When addicts decide to make a change it’s a spur-of-the-moment thing. To wait four months for a detox bed and a rehab space would be like waiting a year, maybe two, for a hip replacement. It’s ridiculous to expect any success at an individual or at a policy level with a four-month wait. More to the point: it’s inexcusable.

Moreover, once people have done detox and rehab, where are they to rebuild their lives? Back in the downtown east side? That’s hardly the answer. The sad fact is that there is not enough ongoing community support and housing in other neighbourhoods and towns to help these people put their lives back together.

What mechanisms are established in outer-lying communities to support people from relapsing or even becoming addicts in the first place? How is the mental health outreach community faring in the smaller towns across the province, or dare I say, the country? How much money are we spending to get people who want to get out of the dangerous neighbourhoods and all its temptations into safer communities?

I wouldn’t even know where to find straight-up answers to these questions, never mind whether they could be answered affirmatively. Worse, I don’t think any of our governments, responsible for this humanitarian catastrophe, could either.

So while the cops bust up an unsanctioned party in support of Insite, our leaders continue to present a brave and united front that this one facility is the only viable choice in Vancouver’s supposedly unique battle with the same addictions that plague cities across North America.

There’s a fine line between compassion and enabling. Should Insite be kept open? Absolutely. I just wonder if Insite, notwithstanding the great work it is reported to do, is merely a symptom of a much more serious problem.

Does Insite actually reduce the harm on our collective conscience over our inaction? Is it possible that our politicians and other policy leaders have chosen to support Insite as an easy way out, to enable the situation because they’d rather do what’s easier, cheaper, and politically most expedient? Where are the detox and rehab treatment facilities to go along with Insite? Where is the political will to make real change outside of the downtown east side?

We may not know the answers, but I certainly know we have to keep asking the questions.