Drug Overdose Deaths Declined After Opening of Insite: Study

April 27, 2011 Updated: April 27, 2011

Illicit drug overdose deaths declined dramatically after the establishment of Insite in Vancouver, North America’s first supervised injection facility, according to a new study published in The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

According to the findings, overdose deaths decreased by 35 percent in the immediate vicinity of the pilot injection site following its opening in September 2003. No overdose deaths were recorded at Insite itself, located in Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside.

In the rest of the city, overdose deaths declined only 9 percent over the same period.

“The results of the study clearly indicate that supervised injection facilities such as Insite are playing a key role in reducing mortality rates from illicit drug use,” said lead author Dr. Brandon Marshall in a press release.

Brandon is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and a former graduate student at the Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI), where the study was conducted.

The researchers examined almost 300 case reports from the British Columbia Coroners Service, which documented all illicit drug overdose deaths in Vancouver between Jan. 1, 2001 and Dec. 31, 2005. The deaths were geographically categorized into those occurring within about half a kilometre from the Insite facility and those taking place elsewhere in Vancouver.

Insite, which was established in response to an HIV epidemic and rising overdose death rates in the Downtown Eastside, allows injection drug users to consume pre-obtained drugs—primarily heroin, cocaine, and morphine—under the supervision of nurses. The facility also has onsite counsellors who provide support and make referrals to programs such as addiction treatment.

UHRI researchers had previously found that Insite played a positive role in reducing HIV risk behaviour, increasing access to primary health care services and additional treatment, and reducing health care costs in the long run.

Nevertheless, Insite has faced opposition from several groups and organizations. One of its most outspoken critics is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who said during an election stop in B.C. that the government “will not use taxpayers’ money to fund drug use.”

In May 2008, the B.C. Supreme Court dismissed sections of the Canadian Criminal Code that prohibit drug trafficking and possession, ruling that they violated the Charter, thereby allowing Insite to continue its operation.

Last January, the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld a decision by the BC Supreme Court that allowed Insite to continue to operate based on its demonstrated health benefits. The federal government is now appealing that decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

On the campaign trail Monday, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said he had visited Insite and that the Liberals support the expansion of such supervised injection sites.