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The demilitarised zone in North America’s drug war

July 25th 2012

InSite campaign poster


It is legal to shoot heroin, and all other outlawed drugs, within a 1,000 square foot area of Vancouver, Canada. The people behind InSite, who campaigned for 20 years to make this happen, were in London last week. They talked about their battle to open a supervised injection facility and how they convinced everyone - including the addicts - that it was a good idea.

In Downtown Eastside Vancouver, 6,000 of the 16,000 residents were drug users. The district had the highest percentage of people converting to HIV in the Western world. This is where, in 1991, Liz Evans and Dan Small opened their 70-bed homeless hostel.

Within the hostel, 90 per cent were injection drug users, 50 per cent were HIV positive, and Dan cites an instance where three generations of the same family were being given CPR at the same time. This is why Liz and Dan fought for 20 years to open and secure the InSite supervised injection facility.

But local people had some other ideas, Dan said: “One of the mayors was polling for the opening of a psychiatric institution to put people from Eastside into. Someone took the time to send me a little note by YouTube saying that we should give them all heroin with cyanide, and here’s someone talking about a concentration camp.”

Even the addicts were opposed to the idea. Liz said: “There was a lot of internalised self-hatred among the drug users. If you asked drug addicts if they thought it was a good idea to open a supervised injection centre, they’d look at you and say: ‘No, that would be like handing candy to a baby, it would be terrible.’”

Dan says that Eastside drug addicts were largely perceived as sub-humans, deserving of their affliction. He explains how InSite campaigners went about changing this: “We did a lot of public education over more than a decade, [introducing the idea] that everyone with an addiction is someone’s family member, and that no one deserves to die because they’re a drug addict.”

Liz says: “It was a massive feat, turning around the minds and hearts of the public, to see why something like InSite could even be useful. It took place over hundreds of conversations, presentations, protests and other events.”

They marked the number of overdose deaths between 1988 and 1998 by putting 2,414 crosses in a local park. Then a 50-foot banner that read ‘The Killing Fields’ was dragged across a busy highway, stopping hundreds of cars. They carried coffins outside City Hall, and collected signatures outside cinemas and inside local restaurants. Every Conservative MP received a copy of their petition, and campaigners blockaded the Prime Minister’s office.

InSite opened, after a 10-year battle, in 2003, but this was challenged in the courts, so they continued fighting for a further decade. On 30 September last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously to keep InSite open.

InSite inspired support from all number of unlikely sources: judges, who against the odds ruled in favour of the supervised injection facility; churches that listed ‘Save the safe injection site’ as the subject of their Sunday sermons; and a Conservative mayor, who sacrificed his political career for the cause.

Dan said: “We were realising that it didn’t matter what political background you were from, you could understand this - if you took the time to look at the evidence and the humanity of it.”

InSite aims to promote harm reduction and keep people alive. The Canadian government’s key objectives were to reduce public disorder, transmission of infectious diseases and risks associated with needles, and increase contact with health services. Over 40 peer-reviewed papers indicate that all of this has been achieved - overwhelmingly.

Though Liz recognizes that InSite is just a small part of the struggle against the huge and complicated issue that is addiction, she believes it to be vital. “It’s given drug users a sense of home, a place, community validation. To conceptualise now not having InSite... I mean, it’s beyond the pale.”




New arrivals hit the streets

Soup Run Forum

Web only: Emergency Islington shelter remains open during sub-zero temperatures

Chairman of the board

Rest in peace - in memory of lost friends

Prince poses

Starter pack boost

Wearing a jacket to beg?

Teens found guilty of killing Ralph Millward

The Passage withdraws service "as a last resort"

New learning centre for Glasgow

iHobo game causes controversy

Auckland extends ban on rough sleepers

Homeless interrogation

Affordable housing development opens in Edinburgh

Who decides?

Credit unions

New counts are optional

Nobby on stage

I will never forget you, my people

London homeless services in limbo over £3.28m cuts

Disused night shelter re-opened for winter months

Coventry Cyrenians forced to cut services

London hub success for new rough sleepers

Crisis Skylight in Birmingham - a year on

Residents look ahead to staff upheaval

Midland Heart report

Labour call for hefty council tax levy on empty homes

Stik pic for the American Church

Lottery grant means new opportunities

Mungo's launches women's campaign

Homeless people forced into slavery

Homeless couple marry in Australia

Number of homeless in Southend underestimated

Basic banking for all

NSNO expands into west London

Scottish homeless applications drop by 19 per cent

Miami cannibal

Invisible People film UK homeless

The demilitarised zone in North America’s drug war

2012 - the year of the right to permanent accommodation in Scotland?

Crisis at Christmas

The Pavement is recruiting

Rough sleeper donates $250 to charity

Food voucher scheme scrapped

Commemorating friends and companions

Human rights for all

First person: Gemskii on regaining control of her life

The shades come off

Upfront: spikes

Comment: Spikes are the least of your worries

Opinion: All up in smoke?

Heartbreak Hotel, episode 4.

The Pied Piper of Housing

March for the Homeless

Being homeless doesn't mean you can't vote on May 7

The vulnerability ruling

The Queen’s speech

Criminalising homelessness

116-bed hostel for young homeless to close in Southwark

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Hipsters neutralise anti-homeless spikes

What the Brexit will happen now?

Anti-homelessness protesters threatened with eviction, jail by Manchester city council

Showing our impact


The birth of the North Gower Action Group

A pianist, an artist, a dog called George and a new homeless app

Living water

Midwinter blues?

Councils back change in law to tackle rising homelessness

Having problems with your JSA?

Mayoral hustings on homelessness


A major step in reducing homelessness?

Liverpool Police homeless curb beggars belief

Charity begins at home?

Legal aid charade

Surviving the streets – by those who've done it

Stop the scandal

Glasgow homeless services at risk

Bill gives councils legal duty to stop homelessness

Homeless Grenfell survivors afraid of deportation

Remembering those who have died in the past year

Safer injection action update

Alexander Withers

Kevin Headley

Changes to Glasgow’s Out-of-Hours Homeless Service


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