Monday, March 8, 2010

Rare Clarity

Insite doesn't do enough to change addicts

By Susan Martinuk

Calgary Herald

March 5, 2010

Corey Ogilvie wanted to document life in Vancouver's notorious downtown eastside (DTES) by spending 30 days living alongside the residents of North America's poorest, most destitute and drug-infested neighbourhood. Film clips of his journey are posted on the Internet and, as one would expect, are highly revealing.

In one clip, he determines he must do drugs to understand addiction. While coming down from a crack high, he decides to try heroin. So his street buddies send him to Insite, Vancouver's safe injection site.

Ogilvie's smuggled camera reveals Insite staff doing everything but stick the needle in his arm as they aid him in his quest. A staff member shows him how to prepare the heroin, fill the syringe and find a vein. He's clearly a novice and the worker asks the obvious question, "So, can I ask? Why the drug use?"

When Ogilvie fails to offer much of a response, the worker offers an upbeat, "It's OK. You don't have to say anything. It's not a big deal."

I don't believe that Ogilvie had any intention of showing how ludicrous life can be at Insite but, intended or not, that's the lasting effect of the above.

The problem is, shooting up drugs is a big deal. Those who work in the DTES and see the harmful impact of drug addiction should understand that better than most. But no one at Insite wants to be the bad guy and make the judgment that injection drug use is bad. Hence, even those trying drugs for the first time are not questioned. (I hope the word doesn't get out to young teens who would be thrilled with a safe place to experiment with new drugs.)

Consequently, up to 800 people float through the facility each day, getting clean needles or shooting up in a clean facility under the watchful, non-judgmental eye of nurses and Insite employees.

No doubt troubled by my columns that question the twisted philosophy that underlies safe injection sites (that nothing can change the behaviour of a drug addict, so we might as well try to limit the damage by offering addicts clean facilities and basic medical/ social support), Insite leaders recently invited me for a guided tour of the facility.

I was very impressed with the sincerity and concern that Insite staff have for those who come through their doors. They are truly kind and compassionate, and provide addicts with a very human (and humanizing) element to their day. For that, I offer kudos.

Yet I came away thinking that Insite's main gauge of success is engagement, not treating addiction, reducing numbers of addicts or providing addicts with a way out. Maybe social interaction is enough for some, but I remain unconvinced that facilitating drug injections and perpetuating a destructive lifestyle is the best way to afford someone their human dignity. These non-judgmental interactions may make addicts feel better about their behaviour, but I didn't sense that the Insite philosophy had any room for the notion that addicts could actually change their behaviour -- at least not the addicts in the DTES.

Insite does have 12 detox beds and 18 'transitional' beds for those who are hoping to get into treatment. They have daily programs such as yoga, health care or counselling for these residents. But, again, I never got the sense that they had much hope for addicts beyond the Insite facilities.

Insite leaders seemed uncertain about what treatment facilities existed and where they were located, but still insisted that they weren't the kind of facilities that would be a good fit for DTES addicts. I'm under no illusion that there are sufficient treatment facilities available, but isn't any addict going to be out-of-his-comfort zone in an addiction treatment facility? Since the intent is to change lifestyle patterns, I would certainly hope so.

If DTES addicts really require a different kind of treatment facility, then why aren't we providing them with one instead of spending millions on a facility that fuels the addiction?

I can already see the letters saying, "Martinuk lacks compassion" or "she's a mean, hard-line, right wing ideologue." But, in truth, I am writing out of compassion for addicts entrenched in the DTES culture. The difference is, contrary to the safe injection site, my compassion moves me to do what I can to set them free.

Pahik Abhou

Should Canadian colleges be more tolerant of Islamic fundamentalism than Cairo's universities?

That's the question being asked by Lysiane Gagnon in her Globe column today about the niqab and the burka.

The top Islamic cleric in Egypt said students and teachers at Cairo's Al-Azhar University would not be allowed to wear face veils in classrooms and dorms on the grounds they had “nothing to do with Islam.”

So why is it OK in Canadian Universities?

A woman in a French-language class for immigrants is fighting her expulsion from class.

Read the details of what really went on in that classroom...

Then, tell me about the limts, if any, of cultural and religious accomodation.

And now, the Other News

Justine Hunter, writing from Victoria in the Globe this morning, points out the gritty specifics of how the provincial government will slowly release the various bits of bad news about its current budget.

You have diabetes and you are on income assistance.


No more blood-glucose meters for you.

"We felt these were frankly add-ons that weren't necessary to healthy living of folks on social assistance."

That's a quote from Rich Coleman, our hosing...uh, Housing and Social Development Minister.

Food banks and arts groups will get less money.

Your hydro bill will go up almost 10% in the coming days, and the huge surplus at ICBC that could have and should have been returned to drivers with good records, has instead been swiped by the government for general revenues.

Yes, the Olympics has changed us all.