By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Vancouver's Insite clinic, the only safe-injection site for drug addicts in North America, can stay open, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday in a landmark defeat for the federal government's tough-on-crime agenda.
The top court, slapping down the Conservative government with some harsh language, ruled unanimously that closing the site in the Pacific Coast city would threaten the lives of drug users and therefore violate their human rights.
The government, which says it is determined to cut crime, complained that keeping Insite open made a mockery of laws designed to stamp out illegal drug use. The federal Health Department had said it would not extend a special exemption to drug laws that allowed the site to operate.
The court ordered the health minister to maintain the exemption, saying to remove it would be an arbitrary decision that broke the principles of fundamental justice.
"It is also grossly disproportionate: the potential denial of health services and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to drug users outweigh any benefit that might be derived from maintaining an absolute prohibition on possession of illegal drugs on Insite's premises," it ruled.
Insite operates in Vancouver's poor Downtown Eastside district, one of the most deprived urban areas in Canada. The clinic was set up in 2003 to allow intravenous drug users to shoot up in a place that had medical supervision.
"Although we are disappointed with the Supreme Court of Canada's decision today, we will comply. We believe that the system should be focused on preventing people from becoming drug addicts," said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
A study in the Lancet medical journal this year said the site had cut drug overdose deaths by 35 percent in the area. Police and local officials had campaigned for it to stay open.
The site's operators - who argued that drug addiction was a disease - said that, before the site opened, drug users were regularly dying of overdoses on the streets. The Downtown Eastside has around 4,600 intravenous drug users.
"It means, finally, after eight years of operating Insite and being subjected to political whims, that now we are safe," Liz Evans, an Insite director, told reporters in Vancouver.
Recovered heroin addict Dean Wilson, a member of the board of the users' group, jumped in the air, whooped loudly and clenched his fists in delight when told of the ruling.
"This has nothing to do with the law-and-order platform, this has to do with gold standard medical intervention for a group of very very ill people," he said at the Supreme Court.
Heroin and cocaine addicts receive clean needles to inject themselves with their own drugs under supervision by a nurse. They can then stay in a special "chill-out" room before returning to the streets.
The Conservatives, who won a majority in the May general election, plan to push through tougher laws on crime and open new prisons - moves that critics say are expensive and will put many more people in jail.
"The Supreme Court sent a clear message to the Conservative government today: its position is indefensible. Their 'war on drugs' has not worked in Canada and has proven to be an abject failure everywhere else in the world," said Hedy Fry, health spokeswoman for the opposition Liberal Party.
The case is Attorney General of Canada et al. v. PHS Community Services Society, et al. (Case no: 33556).
(With additional reporting by Greg Joyce in Vancouver; editing by Rob Wilson)