Clement's drug remarks 'repugnant': doctor
The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, August 20, 2008 9:11AM EDT
VANCOUVER - A doctor who works with addicts at North America's only supervised injection site says Health Minister Tony Clement's slam against physicians who support the facility is "repugnant" and "introduces an element of ugliness into the discussion."
Dr. Gabor Mate said Tuesday he is outraged by Clement's suggestion that doctors who permit or encourage patients to shoot up at the Vancouver site, called Insite, lack medical ethics.
"As an expression of somebody who calls himself a minister of health, it's a very unhealthy statement," Mate said.
"The repugnant aspect is his attack on the morality and ethics of human beings who are trying to work with a very difficult population.
"I mean where does he come off? Where does he appoint himself as a moral judge of professionals who he doesn't understand and knows nothing about?"
On Monday, Clement told an annual gathering of doctors in Montreal that the controversial supervised injection site, where addicts shoot up their own drugs under medical supervision, has created a "slippery slope."
"Is it unethical for health-care professionals to support the administration of drugs that are of unknown substance or purity or potency, drugs that cannot otherwise be legally prescribed?" Clement said in a speech.
Dr. Brian Day, president of the Canadian Medical Association, responded to Clement by saying 79 per cent of members agree that the injection sites work because they advocate harm reduction.
Mate, who works on Insite's detox floor, said he's spent a decade trying to help the drug-addicted and marginalized population in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and Clement's comments only serve to stigmatize them further.
The detox floor at Insite is known as Onsite. There, addicts detox for up to two weeks before moving up to the third floor of the building, where they can stay to await housing or space in a rehabilitation program.
They must stay clean of drugs while there.
"So contrary to what Mr. Clement might think, we're actually encouraging abstinence," Mate said.
"My question to him is, 'How does it affect you on a personal level that you should be so lacking in compassion for people? Do you really understand who these people are who come to Insite? Do you know anything about their personal lives? Have you talked to them?' "
Ann Livingston, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said there simply aren't enough treatment programs for addicts.
Insite has proven to be the best approach to harm reduction, creating a demand for such a facility in Montreal and Victoria, she said.
"People have realized that when addiction touches their own lives in particular they realize that they really need a tool kit to help an addict and it should include injection sites," Livingston said.
"I almost feel a certain amount of pity for the guy (Clement) because I think he doesn't seem to grasp just how sophisticated the level of discussion (has been) that's gone on around ethics.
"To just suddenly enter into the level he's entered this and think that he can sway the Canadian Medical Association people with a few comments, I think is very naive of him," she said.
Livingston also criticized a federal government leaflet delivered this week to her Downtown Eastside neighbourhood and others in which the Conservatives calls addicts "junkies" who should be in rehab or behind bars.
"The Conservative government will clean up drug crime," hails the election-style leaflet featuring a photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"Too many Canadians have seen the ugly face of drug crime," the double-sided page sent from the local MP declares.
"They've had junkies break into their homes to fund a quick fix. They've seen young thugs dealing in schoolyards and getting more kids hooked.
"The Liberal dark decade is over. The Conservative government is getting tough on drug crime so that hard-working Canadians and their families don't have to pay the price for this despicable trade."
Jim O'Rourke, who's been a recovering intravenous heroin user for 17 years, said he doesn't agree with the Insite approach because it enables drug use and costs taxpayers millions of dollars.
O'Rourke said he didn't have an opinion on what Clement said.
O'Rourke runs recovery homes in suburban Surrey and Langley that promote abstinence while housing addicts for a year.
"For me, death is active addiction," he said. "That's the land of the living dead."
O'Rourke said he was "a pain in the ass" to society for years before he cleaned up his act following a stint in jail.
"I broke every law on the planet to get more dope," he said, adding he once imported drugs from around the world for the Big Circle Boys gang and the Hells Angels.
"What got me clean was a hammer over my head."
Insite opened in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 2003 under an exemption from federal drug laws, but the Conservative government has never been keen about letting the facility continue operating despite its backing by some Opposition Liberal, provincial and municipal politicians.
Earlier this year, a B.C. Supreme Court judge struck down laws prohibiting possession and trafficking of drugs by those seeking help at supervised injection sites.
The ruling gives the federal government until June 30, 2009 to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Ottawa's fight to shut down the controversial site will be heard in the B.C. Court of Appeal next April.