Advocates for overdose prevention rally at Ottawa city hall

Drug users, recovering addicts and sober allies demanded local supervised safe injection sites and more access to naloxone — a substance that works as an antidote to overdose — during a rally on International Overdose Awareness Day Monday.

A group of about 50 people protested at the annual event, organized by the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and held at the Human Rights Memorial by city hall on Elgin Street. Set on the monument were 45 pairs of shoes, each a testament to one of the lives lost to drug overdoses in Ottawa last year.

Jennifer Bigallow, a drug user who has been battling addiction for more than 30 years, said that a supervised injection site in downtown Ottawa could be very beneficial.

“I’ve seen personally, I don’t know how many times just downtown, people OD-ing, their eyes rolling in the back of their heads and falling over,” she said. “Countless, countless times. If there was a safe injection site down there, that wouldn’t happen.”

Bigallow suffered three overdoses herself, including one for which she was “under for four, five hours.”

“I’m very lucky to have survived it,” she said. “I count my blessings every day that I survived it. But many people don’t survive it.”

Last week, a coalition of nurses and nursing students announced their plan to try to put injection sites on the agenda during the federal election campaign. Called Nurses for Supervised Injection Services, the group is encouraging others to vote for parties that support the creation of more sites throughout Canada.

The Conservative Party, which has fought Canada’s only supervised injection site for drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, is the only one of the major parties that does not support the expansion of such sites on a national level.

Locally, however, both Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and police Chief Charles Bordeleau are on the record as opposing supervised injection sites.

But Monday’s protest wasn’t just about fighting for the controversial injection sites.

According to Rob Boyd, director of a program at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre that offers harm reduction and health services to drug users and sex workers, one of the biggest issues faced in overdose awareness is raising the red flag for people who aren’t aware they may be at risk.

Although the city has made positive strides, he said, including Ottawa Public Health’s Peer Overdose Prevention Program that targets “people who would use a needle exchange,” a large portion of potential overdose candidates are still not being accounted for.

“There’s a lot of at-risk people out there who would never use a needle exchange,” he said. “They don’t inject their drugs, they don’t associate with that type of community, and they don’t even know they’re at risk. Those are the people that are hardest to reach for us.”

In particular, Boyd cautioned that opiate-based pain medications are one of the reasons why supervised injection sites aren’t a catch-all remedy, and another reason why naloxone should be made more readily available.

“Right now, it’s (got) some limited access only through certain programs like Ottawa Public Health,” he said. “We would like to see more programs be able to provide that service including ours, including methadone programs, correctional facilities. We want to see it at addiction treatment facilities.”

According to Ottawa paramedic Paul Morneau, the paramedic service responded to more than 2,600 calls between Kinburn and Cumberland relating to drug overdoses in 2014 — a 30 per cent increase over the previous year.

This, said Boyd, is why the annual Overdose Awareness Day rally is so vital.

“I think that people are generally not that much aware,” he said. “This is not on their radar, which is a bit alarming because it ought to be on their radar.”

By Patrick Smith
Source: Ottawa Citizen