Canada sets sanctioned site to inject drugs
By Colin Nickerson, Boston Globe

MONTREAL - Canada's health ministry yesterday approved North America's first sanctioned ''safe injection site'' for illegal drug users, a controversial project in Vancouver that the Bush administration has called ''state-sponsored ... suicide.''

The facility, to be located in the heart of the British Columbia port city's drug- and crime-ridden Downtown Eastside neighborhood, will provide a clinic-like setting where drug addicts can shoot up under the supervision of a registered nurse in a facility that offers a legal safe zone for drug users. The aim of the program, which has been endorsed by Vancouver's police, is to offer ''injection supervision'' to prevent overdoses, as well as provide clean needles to reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis, and other blood-borne diseases epidemic among intravenous drug users.

Health Canada, the national health ministry, granted the program a federal criminal exemption that makes it off-limits for police. Addicts cannot be arrested for possession of illegal narcotics while using the facility.

''Users can bring their own drugs, heroin or cocaine, onto the site and inject them,'' said Viviana Zanocco, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. ''People on the premises will be safe from arrest for possession of an illegal substance.''

Similar safe-injection programs have been introduced in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Australia with mixed results: The spread of diseases and deaths by overdose among addicts have declined somewhat, but addiction rates have not fallen, according to some drug-use specialists.

John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has voiced strong objections to the proposed Canadian project, which could be in operation by September with the help of a $1.1 million grant from the Canadian government. Earlier this year, he described it as ''state-sponsored personal suicide,'' arguing that instead of treating the illness of drug addiction, the injection site will enable addicts to continue poisoning themselves in a clinical setting and near the US border.

David Murray, policy analyst with the White House drug control office, said that the United States does not challenge Canada's ''sovereign right'' to underwrite the injection site, but that it is alarmed ''from the point of view of a neighbor and from a public health perspective'' at a program that puts narcotics users and, potentially, dealers beyond reach of the law.

''Canada may be abetting the public health crisis more than treating it,'' he said.

Canada and the United States have been at odds on an array of issues since President Bush was sworn into office. Prime Minister Jean Chretien has infuriated the White House with his refusal to support the Iraq war, his undiplomatic critiques of American economic policy, and his plan to ''decriminalize'' marijuana. Following a number of anti-American jibes from members of Chretien's Liberal Party, the White House in April scrapped Bush's first state visit to Canada, planned for May 5.

Vancouver suffers from some of the highest drug-addiction rates in North America. In Downtown Eastside, addicts shoot up openly in doorways and on curbsides. Crime is rampant and the streets are littered with needles.

City officials say there are 12,000 intravenous drug users among the 1.3 million people in metropolitan Vancouver, including 4,700 addicts in a 12-block section of Downtown Eastside. In the past decade, more than 2,000 addicts have died from overdoses in the city's streets, while about 30 percent of the addicts are infected with HIV-AIDS and 90 percent have hepatitis C, a liver disease.

City officials yesterday greeted the federal government's green light for the project with jubilation. ''Everybody here should take pride in this,'' Mayor Larry Campbell told the City Council. ''`We are the first in Canada, the first in North America.''

The facility will be located a half block from the intersection of Main and Hastings streets - a section known as ''pain and wasting'' among Vancouverites.

The clinic will consist of 12 seats where addicts shoot up under supervision, an emergency room for overdoses, and a first aid station for addicts who arrive with wounds or infected sores.

Sterile needles will be provided, but what sets the project apart is the federal exemption from enforcement of drug laws.

''If we can just slow the spread of the disease among addicts, we'll be saving taxpayers millions and millions of dollars in health costs,'' said Zanocco, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority spokeswoman. ''The US and Canada seem to have different views on drug addiction. We see it as a health issue, not a criminal problem.''