Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Minds Welded Shut

Let's compare and contrast statements about Insite, the supervised injection centre in Vancouver's downtown eastside neighbourhood.

"The decision to implement a supervised safe injection site was the result of years of research, planning, and intergovernment co-operation," the Supreme Court of Canada wrote in a unanimous judgment. "It was launched as an experiment. The experiment has proved successful. Insite has saved lives and improved health. And it did those things without increasing the incidence of drug use and crime in the surrounding area."

The court's decision - effectively ordering the federal health minister to allow Insite to stay open - was released Friday. Across the country, reaction from politicians and police chiefs was immediate.

"I do not support locating a safe injection site in Ottawa, and was very clear about that in the last election," said Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson. Any such facility would have "an extreme negative impact" on the area it was located in, said Ottawa Police Chief Vern White.

He knows this because he visited Insite, White said. "I certainly didn't feel as safe in that area of Vancouver as I did in other areas of Vancouver. I've spoken to police officers who will say the same thing."

For the purposes of our compare-and-contrast exercise, recall that Vancouver's downtown eastside is a small neighbourhood that has been a disaster for decades. Lots was tried. Nothing worked. Police sweeps, high-level drug busts, treatment, social welfare. Things only got worse.

By the mid-1990s, HIV and hep C were epidemic and overdoses soared. In 1993 alone, 200 people died.

So Vancouver considered alternatives, including a safe injection site. It was a radical idea in Canada but scores of such facilities operated in cities across Europe. Research suggested it could make a difference.

Insite opened in September, 2003. It immediately became one of the most scrutinized and studied social policy experiments in Canadian history.

Researchers produced a tall stack of studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals, including some of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. The cumulative conclusion? Insite worked.

The Supreme Court's statement above summarized that evidence exactly. Insite curtailed overdose deaths. It cut blood-borne disease transmission. And it did that without increasing crime or disorder in the neighbourhood.

So the Supreme Court's statement was logical, informed, and supported by an abundance of topquality evidence.

It's safe to say the same cannot be said about the reaction of the mayor and the police chief.

The mayor's statement is nothing more than the sort of peremptory hand-wave a politician does when he wants to change the subject. The chief at least attempted to support his conclusion with evidence, but look at the evidence he cited.

Vern White is sure that supervised injection sites ruin neighbourhoods because he felt less safe in the neighbourhood where Insite is located than he did in other parts of Vancouver. Other cops feel the same, he said.

I agree, incidentally. I've been to that neighbourhood many times. It's not a pleasant place.

But this proves precisely nothing. That neighbourhood was riddled with addiction, disease, and crime long before Insite opened its doors. In fact, Insite was put there because it was riddled with addiction, disease, and crime. Blaming Insite because the neighbourhood is dodgy is as silly as saying "wet streets cause rain." Vern White should be embarrassed.

But that - believe it or not - is not the most appalling part of the chief's comments.

We've got HIV and hep C in Ottawa now. We've got overdose deaths. And we've got heaps of research from Europe and Australia, and heaps more from Vancouver, which tell us that a supervised injection site could help reduce the toll without jeopardizing community safety.

But the chief is opposed. Period. Doesn't want to talk about it. Case closed.

Ditto for Jim Watson. His mind is made up. As he said, he was "very clear about that in the last election." So that's the end of it.

To be clear, skepticism is fine. You're not sure a supervised injection facility is a good idea? You want to see more evidence and think carefully about it? Good.

That's reasonable. But the mayor and the chief aren't skeptical. Their minds are welded shut. They don't want the evidence gathered, reviewed, and discussed. They want people to shut up about it.

It's a story as old as it is sad.

For almost a century, mayors and police chiefs have enthusiastically supported drug-law enforcement, no matter how much research showed that enforcement is futile and destructive, while they arbitrarily rejected alternatives supported by solid evidence.

Open the yellowed pages of a newspaper from the 1980s or 1970s. Or the 1950s. Even the 1920s. You'll find mayors like Jim Watson taking the easy way out. You'll find police chiefs like Vern White insisting that wet streets cause rain.

You'll find federal ministers who refuse to question their politically convenient beliefs. You'll find ordinary people angry that the status quo has produced disease, crime, and death - and who demand that officials do more of what they have always done and not try anything new.

On and on it goes, down through the years, and decades. Only the names change.