03/02/2012 08:58 EST | Updated 05/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Vancouver's Insite: Not Just Addicts Who Benefit

I am a huge fan of Insite, Vancouver's famous safe injection clinic. It provides a model that soon -- very soon -- others will follow. So it was with great satisfaction that I spoke at Simon Fraser University this January, and also at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), sponsored by Insite and the PHS Community Services Society with which it is affiliated.

I got to see things I didn't know about, and when it comes to addiction, I know a lot. When I saw the housing options offered for people in dire need (not the kind you have to wait months to get) I was moved to tears. I thought about people I had lost, and how had such a place existed in Toronto some of these souls might still be with us.

I saw a bank where you can start an account without ID. Think about that: a chance for the down and out to get on their feet ASAP -- rather than after what, for many street drug addicts, may at first seem like insurmountable paperwork! I got my "hands dirty," cleaning up injection booths right there at Insite -- a crash course in how it's done. The efficiency was just plain stunning, as well as the empathy directed at people used to being treated with little respect. I knew that something really special was happening here.

I was honoured to be a part of it.

But there's more to this than kindness, decency, and rationality. The people doing this work get a lot of flack -- much like the first suffragettes and abolitionists. Like those great people in the past, the people at Insite are giving dignity and respect to a group -- addicts -- that is long overdue. In hindsight, their efforts will rate in a similar fashion.

We are currently witness to a pivotal historical transformation: the emancipation of a marginalized group still thought by many to deserve nothing but degradation.

I'm the kind of person who doesn't look up to anybody -- not my style. But, for a fleeting moment here and there, I caught myself looking up to the people at Insite. I saw what they did, and I know that historians will some day discuss many of these individuals in a very positive light.

As a Torontonian, I'm also a little jealous. While good things are happening in Toronto -- there are some great people here doing excellent work -- Vancouver is ahead of us in many ways, and we in Toronto could all learn a bit from that example. Vancouver is probably the most progressive city in North America, something in which every Vancouverite should take pride.

And it'll do the city a lot of good in ways that few understand. Just as 20 years ago, things like Gay Pride marches might have kept some businesses away, today there's no ambiguity: A city with less homophobia is more attractive to businesses and to professionals of all stripes.

The same will soon apply to any urban centre that deals intelligently with drug addiction. The people at Insite and VANDU are not only helping addicts, they are helping Vancouver's future as a business centre, an intellectual mecca, and a better place to live all around -- both for the drug addict and the average citizen.