Seeking Safer Sites: Organizers say injection site would reduce health risks in Ottawa

Bill C-2, entitled an Act to Amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act passed its first reading in the House of Commons in October 2013. Sponsored by the Conservative Minister of Health Rona Ambrose, the Act has been criticized for creating obstacles to establishing safer consumption sites for intravenous drug users.

Bill C-2 was accompanied by a Conservative Party fundraising campaign launched with the tagline “Keep heroin out of our backyards.” The campaign warns against special interest groups that are seeking to replicate ‘”the experiment of Vancouver’s Insite facility.”

The bill was introduced on the heels of a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that upheld an exemption that allows Insite, Vancouver’s safer consumption site, to operate legally. The court ruled in Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society that the closure of Insite would violate Charter 7 rights of its clients that protect life, liberty, and security of the person. The move to close Insite was additionally deemed to be “arbitrary, undermining the very purposes of the CDSA, which include public health and safety.”

Critics of the bill have argued that Insite’s now-established legality is a function of its success: over the course of one year, Insite made over 2,100 referrals to addictions counselling and other support services, reduced overdoses in the Vancouver area by 35 per cent, and greatly reduced drug-related litter. According to a study by the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, clients who visited Insite once a week were 1.7 times more likely to enrol in detox programs and were 70 per cent less likely to share needles. From this, the bill’s critics argue that the success of Insite should set a precedent for care and outreach to intravenous drug users.

Sean LeBlanc of the Drug Users’ Advocacy League in Ottawa said “Bill C-2 will further stigmatize and oppress a population that already faces record numbers of fatal overdoses, arrests and diseases.”

Locally, the Campaign for Safer Consumption Sites in Ottawa (CSCS) conducted an informal survey in fall 2013 of residents and business owners in Lowertown and the Byward Market. Findings suggested that the majority of respondents identified a need for a safer consumption site, and 80 per cent of those felt it should be opened in the Byward Market. This report came after the Toronto and Ottawa Supervised Consumption Assessment study reported that Ottawa has Ontario’s fastest growing rates of HIV infection amongst intravenous drug users.

In their report, CSCS argues that the precedents set by consumption sites in Vancouver and elsewhere demonstrate that safe injection sites support public health by lowering infection rates, reducing overdoses, and increasing the accessibility of preventative care, first aid, and counselling services for intravenous drug users.

As CSCS Ottawa continues to work to assess the need for, and acceptance of safer consumption sites in the city, Bill C-2 is in its second reading. CSCS has launched a campaign urging parliament to make evidence-based decisions regarding the legislation.

The Campaign argues that this means taking into account the body of evidence which demonstrates the efficacy of safer consumption sites and their instrumental value to the community.

By Kristen Bonnell
Source: The Leveller