Ottawa Citizen: Ottawa should have supervised injection sites

In a hallway in the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, there’s a memorial wall of photos and handwritten notes. “I miss your face,” reads one note. Another says: “My heart misses your heart.”

And then this, which should stop you cold: “In memory of everyone the system couldn’t help.”

Each year, an estimated 40 people die from drug overdoses in Ottawa, many from injection drug use. One way to help users who can’t shake their addiction is to monitor the injection at a supervised injection site. In the event of an overdose, there’s medical aid on site. Users might feel less rushed, which helps prevent overdose and infection. And more drug users would get access to clean needles, thereby reducing the spread of disease.

That same health centre whose little wall documents so much heartbreak proposes to open a safe, clean room where users can shoot up.

This sort of supervised injection site may not help everyone (there are up to 5,600 injection drug users in Ottawa.) But Ottawa needs to find a way to keep addicts alive long enough so they have a chance for proper treatment.

This saga of what’s called “harm reduction” began in Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside, where Insite, the first safe injection site in Canada, opened in 2003. Between 2004 and 2010, there were still 1,418 overdoses at Insite. But nobody died there. Instead, thousands were successfully referred to other health services because Insite was a crucial point of contact for them. Its defenders say addicts build relationships at safe injection sites and if they decide they want to change, it can then happen more easily and quickly because they have support.

Still, there are opponents. Former federal health minister Tony Clement has called Insite “an abomination.” Interim Tory leader Rona Ambrose has labelled such places “heroin injection sites.” But the Supreme Court of Canada wouldn’t let the Tory government shut Insite down.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre is on the edge of a residential area. It already operates a needle exchange program, and it sees about 700 users annually. One study says that 75 per cent of injection drug users would come to a safe injection room (they would have to bring their own drugs); the number of people expected at the centre would increase if a supervised injection site opened.

Understandably, residents wonder what this would do to property values. Would there be more crime?

Unless Ottawa is an anomaly, the answer is no. The research doesn’t suggest an increase in crime. “Rates of arrest for drug trafficking, assaults, and robbery were similar after (Insite’s) opening, although rates of vehicle break-ins/theft declined significantly,” says a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy.

To operate a safe injection site, the health centre needs to apply to the federal government for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This requires a letter from the city and the police chief. What do they think?

Mayor Jim Watson is obstinately opposed; so is police Chief Charles Bordeleau. Worse, Watson fed into the very fears that the research addresses on Tuesday, speaking of “the uptake in crime.”

This factual inaccuracy is a problem. Watson says he has an opinion and has “been very consistent.” Evidence, however, should trump opinion.

Watson also thinks we need more treatment beds, and he’s right. But you can’t get treatment for your heroin addiction or mental health problems if you’re dead. That’s why harm reduction matters. It’s not the only step, but it is the first one.

By the Ottawa Citizen Editorial Board
Source: Ottawa Citizen