Editorial: Canada and Ottawa need safer injection sites

It’s too late to save the hundreds of Canadians who’ve already died this year from drug overdoses, but the Liberals’ proposed changes, which would make it easier to open safe-injection sites, will help cities come to grips with a crisis that’s cutting a tragic swath across the country. Absent full drug legalization (and the better health oversight it brings), the best we can do is try to minimize the harm of drug use.

“We need to take swift action on the opioid crisis to save lives,” said Health Minister Jane Philpott, having waited a year into her mandate to actually make it easier to open safe-injection sites.

The Liberals have proposed a five-step plan that, while repealing the more than two-dozen steps needed to open a safe-injection site, still maintains some troublesome elements from the last government’s policy, such as having to prove the need for a site (why wait for the body count to climb?) and gathering evidence about the effect on crime (rates haven’t gone up around injection sites already open).

More than 600 people have died in British Columbia from overdoses this year. Last week, Ottawa paramedics were reminded to wear gloves and masks just in case they come into contact with carfentanil, an opioid so powerful it’s used as an elephant tranquilizer.

About 40 people die of overdoses each year in Ottawa. The paramedics don’t have precise numbers on overdose deaths this year but, in the first six months of 2016, they used naloxone, which can block an opioid overdose, 56 times. In 2015, they used it 61 times in the entire year.

Better than having naloxone handy, users could take their drugs in safe-injection site, where there are trained staff to deal with overdoses. Plus, there are the advantages of accessing clean needles, and it’s secure compared to using on the street. At Insite, one of two such sites in Vancouver, there were around 1,400 overdoses between 2004 and 2010. None led to death.

The truth, backed by proper, peer-reviewed research, is that safe-injection sites save lives, no matter how squeamish they make homeowners, cops and politicians. Mayor Jim Watson, police Chief Charles Bordeleau and police union boss Matt Skof have all, over the years, been impudently and dangerously opposed, though Watson has given himself a bit of political wiggle room on this topic.

The opposition is the absolute worst kind of NIMBYism, in which people value their own comfort and treasure their own biases and electability over the lives of the perhaps 5,600 injection drug users in town.

Yet, Ottawa’s well on its way to getting its own site. The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, on Nelson Street, held public consultations in April, and is aiming for a Spring 2017 opening. It’s been working its way through the bog of regulations created by the Conservatives with the funny-if-it-weren’t-so-Orwellian Respect for Communities Act, which finally passed in 2015, and which made opening a site hugely daunting. Rob Boyd, the executive director of the Oasis drug treatment program at the health centre, figures more than one site will be necessary for drug users in different parts of the city, and said the Liberals’ changes should help the next proposal that comes along.

The most onerous regulation, Boyd explained, was gathering the evidence that a site is needed. “They’ve been clearly demonstrated and there’s no need for every community to have to basically write the same report.”

This crisis exists at least partially because governments continue to criminalize drug use, meaning an unregulated and dangerous black market supplies drugs that can be unsafe. The Liberals will get plenty of congratulations for their proposed changes, and will as well once marijuana is legalized.

There’s little doubt, though, that the politicians haven’t yet arrived on scene with the guts to do what’ll make the biggest difference of all: Legalize all drugs.

By Tyler Dawson
Source: Ottawa Citizen