A clinic in a seamy neighborhood of Vancouver in western Canada is the only place in North America where addicts can get medical supervision as they inject drugs illegally bought on the street.
But more such facilities could be on the way, supporters say, after the British Columbia Supreme Court this week overturned federal drug rules that were expected to force the closure of the clinic.
AdvertisementThe facility, known as InSite, was established under Canada's previous government in 2003, and is operated by a non-profit organization under a special exemption from federal trafficking and possession laws, due to expire June 30.
Canada's current Conservative government had voiced opposition to the facility, and had not indicated whether it would extend the exemption.
In ruling Tuesday, Justice Ian Pitfield agreed with lawyers for the Portland Hotel Society that federal drug laws are unconstitutional as they apply to InSite as a health facility.
Pitfield's ruling means that InSite can continue until at least June of 2009, to give Ottawa time to revise its legislation.
Health Minister Tony Clement said in a brief statement the government is studying the decision, and there is no word yet on a federal appeal.
The western Canada facility's supporters and operators said Wednesday a court ruling may pave the way for more Canadian clinics to open.
The drug supervision facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood says its aim is to prevent overdoses, offer health services and refer addicts to detox facilities.
Mark Townsend, executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, which operates InSite, said he hoped the ruling would clear the way for other similar clinics to open.
"I would hope it would lead to other cities that want to, to use this ruling."
Municipal and provincial governments, federal opposition politicians, health experts and some police had lobbied in favor of keeping InSite open. Most opposition to the site was by the government and Canadian chiefs of police.
The spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health, the provincial health agency that funds InSite, called the ruling "fantastic."
"We should help people even though they are addicted," Viviana Zanocco told AFP, adding that the site will remain open. "It's business as usual. We're going to keep helping the people who come to our door."
Facilities similar to InSite are not unusual in Western Europe and Australia but Vancouver's clinic is unique in North America.
Nearly a dozen studies published in international medical journals have showed the facility is effective in saving lives, reducing disease and helping addicts break their addiction, said Thomas Kerr, a research scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
InSite's patients are hard-core addicts and "the most marginalized citizens in Canada," Kerr told AFP.
"We have a duty to protect their health ... and a more cold-hearted perspective would still take a look at the evidence ... that (InSite) frees up hospital and emergency resources," he said.
"A recent analysis shows the facility is cost-effective. For every dollar spent on the injection site it saves four dollars."
Kerr also said he expects the ruling will help other Canadian cities that have expressed an interest in setting up a site, including Victoria, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, and which have been stalled because of opposition by the federal government.
"I imagine this decision may lead some of these municipalities to pick up these discussions again."
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