A man shooting up in the back doorway of an alley with dirty water. A First Nations elder found dead in her rocking chair with a needle in her arm. Countless people overdosing and dying alone in dilapidated single room occupancy hotels.
That was what addiction looked like in the Downtown Eastside before Insite, North America’s first legal supervised drug injection site, opened its doors, said Mark Townsend of the Portland Hotel Society, which helps operate the site.
But 10 years later, despite continuous opposition from the federal Conservative government, the picture is much brighter.
“We brought people inside. To me that’s the really great thing,” Townsend said Thursday as Insite readies to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its first supervised injection on Saturday.
Not a single death has occurred during more than 2 million visits under Insite’s watchful nurses and counsellors, all because a group of allies from the community, the city and the province decided “not to treat addicts like animals,” Townsend said.
The attitude toward the site has dramatically changed since it opened, he said. Just this week, police officers broadcasted their support by recommending drug users go to Insite to prevent deaths.
And the statistics prove Insite has successfully reduced harm over the past decade.
Life expectancy has gone up by a decade, the rate of HIV/AIDS has dropped in the neighbourhood and people that use Insite are more likely to enroll in detox programs.
Despite such research that supports Insite’s mission, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government led a charge against the site due to its “tough on crime” agenda.
Yet attempts to close Insite were shut down by the B.C. Supreme Court, the B.C. Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada.
Other municipalities, including Toronto, are looking into getting their own safe injection sites.
And there’s still an uphill battle with the federal government when it comes to funding treatment and prevention, Townsend said. The Rainier Hotel, for instance, needs funding to keep operating beds for vulnerable women, he added.