Public health workers are declaring their harm reduction approach a success:
Harm reduction — not a war on drugs — has reduced illicit drug use and improved public safety in what was once Ground Zero for an HIV and overdose epidemic that cost many lives, says a 15-year study of drug use in Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside.
The report by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS found that from 1996 to 2011, fewer people were using drugs and, of those who were, fewer were injecting drugs, said Dr. Thomas Kerr, co-author of the report and co-director of the centre’s Urban Health Research Initiative.
“A public health emergency was declared here because we saw the highest rates of HIV infection ever seen outside of sub-Saharan Africa — in this community. At the same time, the community was being levelled by an overdose epidemic,” Kerr said after presenting his findings to members of the group affected at a community centre in the heart of the neighbourhood.
Vancouver took a public health approach to the crisis, opening the country’s first supervised injection site in 2003, and Kerr said the statistics show that approach was successful.
Kerr goes on to pull the scientific evidence card, casting critics as stupid, unethical and indifferent to death:
“We have a federal government that ignores science in favour of ideology, and people are sick and dying as a result,” Kerr said.
“When we’re dealing with matters such as life and death, I think we’re obligated to base our decisions on the best available scientific evidence. I think it’s unethical to do otherwise.”
There was some disappointing news for health officials in the study.
There has been only a slight drop in mortality rates among the city’s illicit drug users, who have a death rate eight times higher than the general population.
What’s that saying? The surgery was a success, but the patient died.
Now, I’m not saying that law enforcement is a better approach and I’m not saying that reduced disease and crime are unimportant, they are important. However, one of my concerns about public health approaches is that they are often designed to serve the public rather than the individual. When the death rate is only slightly affected, and addicts are still using and homeless, who’s best served by these outcomes of reduced disease and crime?
Harm reduction is not enough. In and of itself, it is not bad.
It’s just bad when the public and professionals declare victory while addicts continue to suffer terrible quality of life.
How much money was spent to achieve these outcomes? How else might that money have been spent?
Why not recovery?