Vancouver's Insite clinic, the only such safe-injection site for drug addicts in North America, can stay open, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Friday in a landmark defeat for the federal government.
The country's top court, slapping down the Conservative government with some harsh language, ruled unanimously that closing the site would threaten the lives of drug users and therefore violate their human rights.
The government, which is pushing a tough-on-crime agenda, said keeping Insite open made a mockery of laws designed to stamp out illegal drug use. The Health Department had said it would not extend a special exemption to drug laws that allowed the site to operate.
The court said such a decision would break the principles of fundamental justice and was arbitrary, ordering the health minister to maintain the exemption.
It is also grossly disproportionate: the potential denial of health services and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to drug users outweigh any benefit that might be derived from maintaining an absolute prohibition on possession of illegal drugs on Insite's premises, it ruled.
Insite operates in Vancouver's poor Downtown Eastside district, one of the most deprived urban areas in Canada. The clinic was set up in 2003 to allow intravenous drug users to shoot up in a place that had medical supervision.
A study in the Lancet medical journal this year said the site had cut drug overdose deaths by 35 percent in the area. Police and local officials had campaigned for it to stay open.
The site's operators - who argued that drug addiction was a disease - said that, before the site opened, drug users were regularly dying of overdoses on the streets. The Downtown Eastside has around 4,600 intravenous drug users.
Recovered heroin addict Dean Wilson, a member of the board of the users' group, jumped in the air, whooped loudly and clenched his fists in delight when told of the ruling.
This just substantiates what I've been saying for a long time, that what we've been doing is the right thing. This has nothing to do with the law-and-order platform, this has to do with gold standard medical intervention for a group of very very ill people, he told reporters.
Heroin and cocaine addicts receive clean needles to inject themselves with their own drugs under supervision by a nurse. They can then stay in a special chill-out room before returning to the streets.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq will comment on the court ruling later Friday, a spokesman said.
The Conservatives, who won a majority in the May general election, plan to push through tougher laws on crime and open new prisons - moves that critics say are expensive and will put many more people in jail.
They always took this political ideological partisan position, said Libby Davies, a legislator for the opposition New Democrats, whose parliamentary constituency includes the Downtown Eastside.
I want to say to them: Have you now understood, have you learned the importance of what Insite is about? ... There have been no deaths from overdoses inside Insite, she said.
The case name is Attorney General of Canada et al. v. PHS Community Services Society, et al. (Case no: 33556).