Consultation on supervised injection site begins next week in Ottawa

Public consultations begin Monday on a controversial proposal by the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre to give injection drug users a safe place to feed their addictions.

The first of four planned meetings will take place at the centre’s Nelson Street facility on Monday evening. Local residents will be invited to learn about the proposed safe injection site, ask questions and offer feedback.

The health centre wants to add a small-scale facility — with room for four or five injection drug users — to its existing cluster of services.

“The goal for us is to provide some education to the local community in terms of some of the myths and misunderstandings about a supervised injection service,” said health centre executive Rob Boyd. “And we want to hear what they have to say about our service model.”

The safe injection site, he said, can address the principal health risks faced by drug users — overdoses and infections — while also reducing the number of people injecting in public places and discarding their needles.

A preliminary budget suggests the service would cost an additional $250,000 to $300,000 a year, money that would have to come from the province through the regional health authority, the Champlain LHIN.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre already offers a needle exchange program, counselling, medical and social services to about 700 injection drug users in downtown Ottawa. It would be a natural evolution for the health centre, Boyd said, to offer clients clean needles along with the option of injecting their drugs under a nurse’s supervision.

Surveys conducted by the health centre suggests addicts will not walk more than 10 or 15 minutes to use a supervised injection service. It means the centre is not expecting a big increase in client numbers.

“We’re hoping there will be a slight increase in numbers — people coming in because because we’re offering supervised injection — but we think it’s important for people to know that it’s not like we’re offering no services, and suddenly there’s going to be 700 injection drug users coming here.”

Boyd hopes to present a detailed plan to the health centre’s board of directors in June then submit an application for federal government approval this fall. If the government grants it an exemption from federal drug control laws, the safe injection site could open at this time next year.

It has been more than a decade since activists in Ottawa first raised the possibility of opening a safe injection site in this city. Boyd said he’s optimistic that the plan will finally come to fruition, even though Mayor Jim Watson and Police Chief Charles Bordeleau remain opposed to the idea.

Watson has said that limited tax dollars are better spent on drug treatment programs, while the police have suggested the facility would concentrate drug crime in the neighbourhood.

Chad Rollins, president of Action Sandy Hill, said the residents’ association is not yet in a position to comment on the safe injection site proposal. It will be meeting with health centre officials in May.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury said he doesn’t know whether Ottawa needs a safe injection site like the one in Vancouver, which has a much larger population of addicts. He plans to ask the city’s medical officer of health for an updated profile of the city’s injection drug users, and for an analysis of overdose deaths in Ottawa.

Currently, Vancouver is home to Canada’s only government-sanctioned safe injection sites. Such facilities must receive a federal government exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in order to operate legally.

The previous Conservative government tried to shut down the country’s largest safe injection site, Insite, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2011 that the attempt was arbitrary, disproportionate and unconstitutional.

The Conservatives responded to that decision by passing a law, the Respect for Communities Act, that puts onerous new conditions on any group that wants to open a safe injection service.

The new Liberal government, however, has already signalled that it believes in harm reduction programs. Health Minister Jane Philpott has approved the country’s second safe injection site — a small facility that had been quietly operating for years in Vancouver — and has made the drug naloxone more widely available as a treatment for opioid overdoses.

Philpott has said that she’s in favour of “evidence-based approaches” to substance abuse.

Safe injection sites are now under consideration in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Thunder Bay, London and Victoria as cities struggle to address soaring overdose rates.

Overdoses have skyrocketed in Canada alongside the rising availability of fentanyl, a powerful narcotic that is relatively easy to manufacture and is often mixed with other drugs, such as heroin.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that country is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic: Between 2000 and 2014, nearly half a million Americans died from drug overdoses. The annual number of overdose deaths almost tripled during that time.

What: The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre is seeking input from local residents on a service model for the proposed supervised injection site
Where: 221 Nelson Street
When: Every Monday in April from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m.

By: Andrew Duffy
Source: Ottawa Sun