Opinion: Canada should introduce needle programs for prisoners

May 15, 2017
Article Source
Montreal Gazette

From a Montreal Gazette opinion piece: In December 2016, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott committed her government to a new national drug strategy that reinstates harm reduction as a non-negotiable pillar. It was a welcome announcement, signalling a modest shift away from the last decade's emphasis on prohibition and punishment — policies that continue to kill people who use drugs in Canada.

This commitment to harm reduction and evidence-based responses to problematic drug use has come at a time of crisis, including a massive spike in opioid fatalities in Canada. To its credit, the federal government has taken a number of important steps, easing access to naloxone for reversing overdoses, and passing the "Good Samaritan" law removing the risk of prosecution for drug possession if someone calls for help in an emergency. The health minister has also approved several applications for safer injection sites, and she introduced Bill C-37, which would — if passed without some damaging amendments made by the Senate — make it much easier to open and operate these life-saving health services.

But as Canada hosts the 25th Harm Reduction International Conference May 14-17 in Montreal, the world is watching. Now is a good time to underscore that harm reduction must be reflected throughout Canadian policy, including in prisons.

Prisoners do not surrender their right to health services upon entering a corrections facility. Both federal and international human rights law mandate that such health services must be equivalent to those available outside prison. But Canada remains in ongoing breach of this obligation: if the government is serious about adopting an evidence-based response to problematic drug use, and serious in its claim to respect Charter rights, then we must offer needle and syringe programs in prison.

Rates of HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) in prison are much higher than they are in the community at large.

Now consider the reality that drugs in prison, as in broader Canadian society, are a part of life. Almost one-third of federal prisoners reported using drugs during the past six months in prison, while 17 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women reported injecting drugs. Yet there is little or no access to sterile injection equipment in prisons; instead, makeshift "rigs" to inject are often shared among multiple people.

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