Commentary  Point/Counterpoint: Safe injection sites

Located in Vancouver, Insite is North America’s first and only safe injection site. Since it opened in 2003, nearly 10,000 individuals have visited the facility to use drugs and receive access to health care services in the event of an overdose. But even today, some five years later, its existence is far from secure. The Harper government has been fighting through the courts to have the facility shut down, and recently appealed a B.C. court decision that allowed Insite to remain open, with the final ruling coming in April 2009. Below, two U1 students debate whether Insite’s resources perpetuate drug addiction or lead addicts on a path to recovery.


If you’re going to do it, be safe

Sarina Isenberg


Drug use is inevitable in society; it will occur regardless of law enforcement. The negative side effects to injecting drugs unsafely range from the possibility of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C transmission through shared needles, to infections and overdose through needles used incorrectly. However, these can be prevented.

Insite assists individuals to inject safely under the supervision of nurses and trained staff who provide users with clean, sterilized needles and educate them on the least harmful methods for injection. After injecting, participants can receive services related to care for the treatment of wounds and infection. If a participant experiences a negative reaction to the drugs, medical professionals are on hand to assist them.

Some might argue that allowing drug users to inject in a clean setting “glamorizes” drug use, since drugs are no longer associated with dark alleys and illicit activities that might deter possible users. But this assumption is wholly inaccurate.

Research has proven that Insite prevents fatal overdoses, and decreases needle sharing, public injection, and injection-related disorders. A study published last month in The Canadian Medical Association Journal explained that over the next ten years, Insite could save the health care system $20-million and save 1,070 life years. Insite is a preventative measure, helping addicts before various illnesses associated with improper injection cause them to rely heavily on the health care system.

Futher, Insite does not supply drugs, so opponents can rest assured that drugs deals would continue to make many people uncomfortable. The real question is, should we make addicts suffer in order to “teach them a lesson?” Should we allow them to continue dangerous practices to possibly contract diseases and die of overdoses when a successful prevention already methods exists?

Insite is part of a long-term plan to assist high-risk users deal with their addictions through referrals to addiction and counselling services, and the safe injection site is leading to an increased uptake in detox programs. Insite is not just a place where people inject drugs, it is a community, a supportive environment where marginalized groups who might not have access to adequate health care receive medical attention.

The alternatives to Insite would involve ignoring what is happening and enforcing stricter drug laws to the point where drug users are forced to once again inject in unsanitary areas.

Addiction is a psychological problem, and it cannot be ignored. Addicts need help, and at a place like Insite, they can begin a gradual process to recovery.

Sarina Isenberg is a U1 English student and the Inter-Club Coordinator of the McGill Global Aids Coalition. You can reach her at


“Just Say No” to drugs – and Insite

Sean Stefanik


In no other sphere of society does our government explicitly condemn a particular act – through criminalization, for example – and then provide funding for a facility that directly contravenes those laws. The paradox of Insite is at the core of the debate over drug strategy in Canada. How can we legitimately further a message of “just say no” while simultaneously supporting facilities such as Insite? The question of safe injection sites in Canada must not be viewed in a vacuum; instead, it must be considered within the context of our broader anti-drug strategy.

To begin, let’s be clear about one thing: the use of dirty needles is neither pleasant nor desirable, but the consequences of drug abuse are far worse. Heroine, for example, can be instantly addictive; morphine, cocaine, and methamphetamine all carry a plethora of different problems. The harms of using dirty needles, contracting infections, or anything else that Insite purportedly helps to prevent pale in comparison to the broader consequence of drug addiction. In this respect, safe injection sites are counterproductive in a number of ways.

First and foremost, Insite provides a vehicle through which current drug users can sustain their addictions. From clean needles and on-call doctors to comfy chairs and the privacy of your very own cubicle, this facility removes many elements of a drug addict’s life that help to make that addiction unsustainable.

Second, a safe and cozy atmosphere in which you can shoot up – really, look at the pictures, it’s quite the classy joint – helps to encourage drug use in general. Dirty needles, dark alleys, and dangerous consequences all discourage people from starting to use drugs. Insite, however, provides individuals with a false sense of security. The allure of medical treatment in the event of an overdose and the availability of clean needles create an environment in which individuals feel safe. This is a huge problem – heroine use should never seem safe. Insite creates this illusion. By removing many of the disincentives associated with drug use, safe injection sites impair the government’s ability to pursue a strategy centred on prevention.

This reality begs the obvious: how do we deal with current addicts? The solution is to help them onto the path to recovery, not to accommodate their addictions. This can be done without the dangers of safe injection sites. For instance, putting more resources into rehabilitation programs could be incredibility effective. These can be more successful when they’re the only means for users to get help; Insite simply provides another way for addicts to skirt around their addiction without dealing with the larger problems. They might not provide users with their drugs, but offering a means for addicts to continue their addictions is just as detrimental.

Emphasizing prevention doesn’t neglect current addicts, but instead helps to achieve a more important goal in the long-term: reducing the absolute number of individuals addicted to drugs. This must be the top priority of any anti-drug strategy, something that Insite fails to recognize.

Sean Stefanik is a U1 Political Science and the Secretary of the McGill Debating Union. You can reach him at