Don't deny the benefits of supervised injection sites

The experts have all weighed in: Ottawa is teetering on the precipice of an overdose crisis. Supervised injection sites can save the lives of some of the people at risk.

The city’s health unit and chief medical officer now say they support a safe-injection site. Six city councillors who sit on the health board are all open to the prospect, which they’ll debate Monday.

Now it’s time for the mayor and police chief to rethink their position.

Jim Watson has long insisted that rather than invest in supervised injection sites – safe places where drug users can inject drugs with sterile needles, and where medical staff are on hand in case of overdose –  money should be spent on drug treatment. Police Chief Charles Bordeleau, meanwhile, has raised the spectre of increased crime and drug trafficking near these sites, though former deputy police chief Larry Hill does support the harm reduction sites.

Nobody argues against treatment, of course. But the health unit, after studying drug use – about 30 to 40 users die each year in Ottawa – has concluded a safe-injection site should be one weapon in the city’s arsenal. It’s hard to ignore such expert advice.

Watson has long had the political strength to set the city’s agenda, despite having only one vote on a council of 24. But facing mounting evidence on this issue, his grip may be loosening.

It’s true the safe-injection-site decision isn’t up to council or the health board; it’s the federal government that grants exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. But the views of local officials are taken into account.

Three community centres, in addition to the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, which is already well into the process of opening injection booths, are considering opening their own supervised injection spots. “It makes sense … because injection-drug users are not concentrated in one area,” says Jack McCarthy of the Somerset West Community Health Centre.

Some of the fear over the site in Sandy Hill – from residents and the police – is that there will be an influx of addicts to the area who will steal whatever they can to finance their habit. Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury has said his ward doesn’t want to have the whole city’s drug users clustering there. His fears would be alleviated if services were spread out.

Ottawa may not need four safe-injection sites. But there are addicts all over town, and people are working hard to care for them. The health unit and councillors are slowly accepting the bulk of the evidence about how to help them – and claiming ethical high ground at the same time.

The mayor should follow suit.

By the Ottawa Citizen Editorial Board
Source: Ottawa Citizen