'A no brainer': Drug treatment agencies want a safer injection site in Ottawa

A coalition of addiction treatment agencies has unanimously endorsed the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre’s plan to open a supervised injection site in downtown Ottawa.

“There is clear evidence of need for supervised injection services in Ottawa,” Lise Girard, chair of the Champlain Addiction Co-ordinating Body, wrote in a letter of support obtained by Postmedia. The co-ordinating body represents 20 government-funded agencies in the region that offer drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, a longstanding critic of the plan to open a safe injection site, has said that scarce health care dollars are better spent on drug and alcohol treatment programs in the city.

But in an interview, Girard said if she had the choice, she would finance a supervised injection site in downtown Ottawa rather than give more money to local addiction programs.

“I would put the money toward a safe injection site at this time,” said Girard, also senior director of the mental health and addictions programs at the Ottawa Withdrawal Management Centre. “Because this is going to save lives. People overdose and there are new drugs coming on the street all the time.”

Girard said the emergence of fentanyl powder, an opioid that looks like heroin but is 30 to 50 times more powerful, is likely to add to the death toll among injection drug users in Ottawa. About 40 people die every year in the city from unintentional drug overdoses.

What’s more, Girard said, a supervised site would promote safer injection practices and reduce the number of HIV and hepatitis C infections, which are costly to treat. “There will be less infection, less death. It’s a big deal. It’s really something that will change the landscape quite a bit and make the communities safer because right now people are injecting on street corners.”

Addiction treatment and supervised injection should not be regarded as competing alternatives, she argued, but as part of “a continuum of care” for drug users.

“Anything we can do to help them progress along that change curve towards wanting to stop altogether is a meaningful step,” she said.

Monique Brisson, executive director of Serenity House, called a safe injection site “the first door” in what is often a twisting passage to treatment for addicts.

“For all of us who work in the field, it’s a no brainer,” she said. “We understand that’s the best place for it (treatment) to start.”

Serenity House offers a three-month residential treatment program for adult men, and is at one end of the treatment spectrum, Brisson said. It is designed for addicts who are ready to stay clean and sober.

A safe injection site, she said, is another kind of drug treatment for another kind of addict: “These are people who are suffering, who need help and need to be connected to services, but they’re not ready to say, ‘I’m ready for treatment.'”

Mike Beauchesne, executive director of the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre, said the demand for drug and alcohol treatment continues to exceed the supply of beds. “The demand is high for addiction treatment at all levels,” he said.

The Dave Smith centre received a $1.5 million cheque from the province on Friday to help finance the construction of an expanded, 30-bed residential treatment facility that will consolidate three current sites.

People in search of addictions treatment in Ottawa face an average wait time of 24 days, according to Steve Vachon, manager of Ottawa Addictions Access and Referral Services. The five-year-old agency, which acts on behalf of 18 treatment programs in the region, has helped streamline the system and reduce wait times, which once stood at three months.

During the past year, the agency conducted 1,800 client assessments and made 1,500 treatment referrals.

By Andrew Duffy
Source: Ottawa Citizen