It would have been quite a news conference, and it very nearly happened. Last fall, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, after months of intense, private talks, agreed to face the media together to declare their agreement that research shows the “benefits” and “positive impacts” of supervised injection sites for intravenous drug users.
For the RCMP, making such a statement would have been a turning point: the Mounties would have had to distance themselves from dubious studies, commissioned by the force itself, that were critical of Insite, Vancouver’s pioneering safe injection facility. And that would have been a politically awkward move for the federal police, since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is firmly committed to shutting down Insite.
But senior officers seemed ready to take that dramatic step. “I can confirm we are good to go from our end,” said Chief Superintendent Bob Harriman, a top RCMP drug enforcement officer in Vancouver, in an email he sent on Oct. 28, 2009, to Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. centre. Harriman’s email included “proposed messaging for [a] joint media release” of the RCMP and the research centre. The RCMP would acknowledge “an extensive body of Canadian and international peer-reviewed research reporting the benefits of supervised injection sites and no objective peer-reviewed studies demonstrating harms.” As well, Harriman said the RCMP would admit that “reviews” commissioned by the force, which contested the centre’s research, “did not meet conventional academic standards.”
The proposed joint media release was never issued. Nor did the RCMP officers and the centre’s doctors appear together for their planned news conference. According to Montaner, two days before the scheduled event last December—after a venue had been booked at the University of British Columbia and “the banners were ready”—he received a telephone call from Deputy Commissioner Gary Bass, the most senior RCMP officer in British Columbia. “He said, ‘Julio, can’t do it,’ ” Montaner recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean, Gary?’ He said, ‘I’m really sorry, I’ve been ordered not to go ahead with the news conference.’ ” Montaner says Bass made it clear that the order came from RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.
Even after that setback, Montaner pursued his grievance further up the RCMP chain of command. He’s known for his tenacity. Along with heading the research centre, Montaner is a professor of medicine at UBC, and it was announced recently that he will receive the Order of British Columbia for his groundbreaking AIDS work. A charismatic figure in the international movement to combat the disease, Montaner straddles science and advocacy. When his negotiations with Bass didn’t pan out, he pressed on early this year to develop what he describes as a remarkably productive relationship with Deputy Commissioner Raf Souccar, a high-ranking RCMP officer in Ottawa, who is responsible for the force’s federal and international operations, and has an extensive background in drug investigations.
Despite forging those key links, Montaner finally failed to get the RCMP to agree to publicly admit any mistakes on Insite. On June 24, his centre instead filed a complaint with the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, hoping that the watchdog body would, among other remedies, order the force to acknowledge that it had wrongly tried to discredit the centre’s legitimate research demonstrating Insite’s benefits. However, the commission sent him a letter late last month saying that sorting out this tangled episode went beyond its mandate. At that point, Montaner told Maclean’s his story in an interview and his centre provided key documents supporting his version of events. The RCMP declined to make a senior officer available to be interviewed for this article or to answer any questions.
Insite has been controversial ever since it was established in 2003 as North America’s first legal facility where drug addicts could go to inject themselves. Located in the heart of Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside, Insite has 12 booths where users inject the illegal drugs they bring in with them, with nurses standing by. They’re given clean syringes, cookers, filters, water and tourniquets. More than 400 overdoses have occurred at the facility, but nobody has ever died there from one. Counsellors and social workers are available to help addicts who want to make a bid to change their lives.
The former Liberal government allowed Insite to open by exempting it from drug enforcement laws for three years. Health Canada provided funding to evaluate it as a sort of pilot project in harm reduction.
Montaner’s centre took on the bulk of that research. Although he’s emerged as a forceful advocate for Insite, he denies his centre set out to produce supportive findings. “We honestly came into this without knowing if it would be all good, all bad, or somewhere in between,” he says.