VANCOUVER North America's only sanctioned facility for injection of illegal drugs has cut overdose deaths and should be used as a model in other cities, according to a study published on Monday in the Lancet medical journal.
The study came as Canada's highest court prepared to hear a lawsuit over the federal government's attempt to close down the Insite facility in Vancouver despite calls by local health officials and police to keep it open.
Heroin and cocaine addicts at the facility are given clean needles to inject themselves with their own drugs in a room supervised by a nurse. They are then allowed to stay in a "chill-out" room before returning to the streets.
The facility has cut drug overdose deaths by 35 percent in Vancouver's downtown Eastside neighborhood, which has one of Canada's highest drug addiction rates, according to the study in Lancet.
Overdose deaths fell elsewhere in Vancouver at the same time but by much less than in the area surrounding Insite, where most of its users live, according to researchers from the B.C. Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
Modeled on facilities in Europe, Insite is funded by the province of British Columbia and requires an exemption from Canada's drug laws to remain open.
It was initially allowed to open as a medical trial, as researchers studied claims it would reduce overdose deaths, control the spread of HIV and help get addicts into treatment programs without increasing crime in the neighborhood.
Insite's critics say it promotes illegal drug use, and the federal government has said it wants to shut down the facility now that the medical trial period has ended. The United States has urged Canada to shut down the facility.
Two courts have blocked the government's efforts, ruling Insite needs to remain open as a needed medical service. Ottawa has appealed those rulings to the Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the case in May.
A commentary in Lancet accompanying the study's results said they demonstrated the facility's success and why additional sites should be opened across Canada.
"Supervised injection facilities clearly have an important part to play in communities affected by injection drug use," wrote Dr. Chris Chris Beyrer, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Insite's supporters say other studies have also found that facility has been a success.
(Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing Paul Simao)