Huge Demands for Heroin Site
Vancouver - Health authorities in Canada's westernmost province want to make the country's first test facility for heroin injection permanent and are considering opening additional clinics to meet the huge demand.
The Vancouver facility was set up in 2003, against US opposition, as a three-year experiment exempt from Canadian drug laws.
Since then the clinic, North America's only such operation, has run at capacity, with some 800 heroin injections daily.
"It's all-round positive, with no downsides," said Perry Kendall, British Columbia province's chief medical officer.
Kendall said the clinic achieved its goal to cut overdose deaths and rates of hepatitis and HIV infection. Although its exemption from drug laws will not expire until September 2006, this month he applied to Health Canada to make the facility permanent.
With a federal election currently underway in Canada, a decision will likely take months.
The clinic looks like an innocuous storefront in Vancouvers squalid Downtown Eastside district, Canada's most impoverished neighbourhood with more than 5 000 heroin addicts concentrated in a 10-block area.
Police have turned a blind eye
Addicts bring in drugs purchased illegally on the street, and self-inject them under medical supervision. There are onsite emergency services in case of overdose and staff nurses and counsellors to provide health care and referrals to rehabilitation facilities.
Worldwide, about 50 similar clinics operate routinely, mostly in Europe.
As in Europe, Canadian public opinion has changed to view drug addiction as a health issue instead of a purely criminal matter.
But drug issues here are affected by the proximity to the United States with its official war on drugs.
The Vancouver clinic is a stone's throw from the border with Washington state, and since it opened the White House has criticised it as an "inhumane" medical experiment.
The US also opposes a new experiment in Vancouver to give addicts free prescription heroin in hopes of reducing property crimes to feed their habit.
Ironically, the success of Vancouvers supervised heroin use site led to another controversy this month, as Vancouver police launched a crackdown on public drug use.
For years police have turned a blind eye in some areas to thousands of addicts shooting up on sidewalks, streets and in public buildings such as libraries, and leaving behind used syringes.
Police now say because addicts can use the supervised facility, they will be stopped from injecting in public.
Advocates for drug users protested that the police crackdown is cruel because the clinic can only serve a minority of drug users.
"It's just a really destructive thing," said Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.
She notes that the supervised site can handle just 800 of 15 00 heroin injections daily, and staff are prohibited from physically injecting addicts or letting other addicts inject incapacitated users.