Plaintiff is living proof of Insite's value to community Supervised injection site returns feeling of self-worth to addicts, says Dean Wilson, who has been clean for 15 months and counting
By Peter McKnight, Vancouver Sun May 12, 2011
Dean Wilson does not shoot drugs at Insite. In fact, he doesn't shoot drugs at all. And this is precisely why the supervised injection site must remain open.
Wilson did avail himself of Insite's services once, though. Or rather, much more than once: The very first user to "fix" at Insite when it opened in 2003, Wilson recently ended a 40-year habit that saw him injecting cocaine 30 or 40 times a day.
Having put drugs behind him, Wilson has traded a seat at Insite for one in the gallery of the Supreme Court of Canada, as the court today hears a case that bears his name -Attorney-General of Canada v. PHS Community Services Society, Dean Wilson and Shelly Tomic -the case that will decide the future of Insite, and more importantly, the future of those who continue to use its services.
FIRST TRIED HEROIN AT 12
Wilson's journey to the Supreme Court isn't a typical one. Born in Winnipeg in 1955 to a 16-year-old mother with substance abuse problems of her own, Wilson was adopted by an upper middle-class couple who would provide for all of his wants.
Except one. At an age when most boys are just discovering girls, Wilson discovered something else: Heroin. Upon first trying the drug at 12, Wilson declared to his brother "I feel normal."
Heroin's gift of normalcy came at a high price, however, as Wilson suffered his first overdose at 14 and, despite the best treatment money could buy, three more over the next two years.
Still enamoured of his harsh mistress -heroin -Wilson soon left home for Rochdale College, Toronto's infamous experiment in free living that quickly became a polluted drug den. Interestingly, Wilson says he used less hard drugs during this time given their scarcity at Rochdale, but he also admits that he became fairly heavily involved in selling drugs of the softer variety.
After his wayward teenage years, Wilson embarked on a life of surprising normalcy -though the "normalcy" of heroin was never far away. He completed high school and two years of university, and settled in British Columbia where he married and had three children. After he and his wife separated, he became a single father, raising all three children on his own.
But as his children approached their teens and he approached 40, he experienced a mid-life crisis of epic proportions. Saying he "lost purpose in life," Wilson discovered a newer, harsher mistress: Cocaine. What was a twice-a-day heroin habit became an hourly coke fix, and resulted in Wilson becoming incapable of caring for his kids or much else.
They moved in with their mother, while Wilson moved somewhere else -to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, where the steady supply of drugs ensured that he would spend his days and nights satisfying his new mistress. Or as Wilson describes it: "Somewhere along the line that drug starts doing you."
After some four years of this existence, Wilson attended a meeting of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), a group he would later lead. It was this meeting that introduced Wilson to "the political action around drugs" and, he says, changed his life.
He resolved to give up cocaine, though he soon learned that cocaine wasn't about to give him up without a fight. For the next decade, Wilson entered detox "at least" 20 or 30 times, but never lasted more than a day. The longest he ever went without a fix of something was a mere three weeks.
He deteriorated, reaching rock bottom about two years ago.
Having dropped from a healthy 170 pounds to 112, and having slept just three nights during the past month, Wilson was spotted by former Vancouver drug policy coordinator Don MacPherson, who took him into his home.
Wilson then attended Onsite, the detoxication and transitional housing services upstairs from Insite, and after three tries, he finally kissed cocaine goodbye.
He has now been clean for 15 months, and is confident that he will not use drugs again.
INSITE'S 'OFFER OF HOPE'
As Wilson sits in the Supreme Court today, he will hear complex legal arguments about how shuttering Insite infringes drug users' Charter rights to security of the person, and he will hear about complex scientific evidence attesting to Insite's association with increased uptake of detoxication and treatment services.
These arguments and evidence are nothing new to Wilson. He has heard them a thousand times before -indeed, he has lived them. But when he speaks of the importance of Insite, you hear something else, something only an insider can say with feeling: While not a traditionally religious man, Wilson speaks of a distinctly spiritual dimension at Insite, of how it presents an "offer of hope" to those who remain on the street and on drugs.
"Junkies," after all, are literally seen as vermin by many, and that view is often internalized by users themselves. They often see themselves as neither possessed of, nor worthy of, a future -or as Wilson puts it in his characteristically poetic way: "Does a homeless person even dream on the street?"
By validating, not their drug use, but their humanity in spite of their drug use, Insite gives them a sense of selfworth and allows them to dream of a future -allows them to say, in Wilson's words, "My God, I am somebody." This often translates to their taking charge of their health, to seeing doctors when necessary rather than letting their wounds -and their lives -fester.
Of course, detractors claim that Insite does validate drug use, that it merely enables and escalates users' self-destruction. Wilson bridles at the suggestion: "Every bathroom in the Downtown Eastside is an injection site," he maintains, but only Insite offers users physical, psychological and spiritual sustenance.
Wilson also stresses that Insite is not a stand-alone facility. Rather, while Insite provides a safe place for users to inject, it also provides counselling and referrals to detox and treatment. When users are ready for detox, they need only go upstairs, to Onsite. Once they complete that, they can move to the third floor, which provides transitional housing. Wilson knows something about this, since he is a "graduate" of all three floors, and it is a testament to the value of Onsite that they were able to help him after so many other programs had failed.
But Insite also plays an important role since it serves as a point of first contact for many users. Or in keeping with its spiritual dimension, we could say that Insite ministers to those who are lost -that, as Wilson has it, "Insite saves lives, while Onsite changes lives."
In keeping with the spiritual motif, we can also say that Wilson has been no angel in his life, since he confesses to, among other things, having sold a lot of drugs back in the day. But freed as he now is from the physical and psychological bonds of drug addiction, he can finally dream of a future for himself, and it is a future that promises spiritual redemption as well.
While proudly declaring "I am not a drug addict," Wilson promises that he will spend the rest of his life helping others to become free as well, that he will address the damage done by drugs and the politics of drugs, that, ultimately, he will "stand with the users and fight this until the day I die."