Group hopes for safe drug consumption site in Ottawa

On the busy streets of the ByWard Market, people are always in a rush to get where they need to be. Nobody grants the man sitting on the sidewalk, holding an empty cup, any attention.

Though he is asking for money, he does not raise his eyes to meet anyone. His clothes are torn, his skin dirtied from nights of sleeping on the streets. Most passersby also avert their eyes of the man standing behind him. Christopher Dalton is here to lend his voice to the voiceless.

Dalton was inspired after the Vancouver Insite clinic was legalized by the Supreme Court of Canada on September 30th, 2011. He was determined to bring one to Ottawa.

Dalton is an outreach worker at Centre 507, an adult drop-in centre for those who are economically and socially disadvantaged.

“I see the reality first hand, not as a user, but as someone trying to support them,” Dalton said.

“Everyone thought it was a good idea, but nobody was really pursuing it,” Dalton said. He came up with the idea of organizing an advocacy group called the Campaign for Safer Consumption Sites (CSCS).

Dalton needed support for the campaign and while he has received it, the idea of a legal place to inject illegal drugs scares off many Ottawa citizens, including the mayor.

“I feel like here [in Ottawa], it just has to happen and then people will see that it is not some dirty, crazy place,” said Dalton.

“We just started to create this group that was different from the Drug User’s Advocacy League because it was focusing specifically on getting safe consumption sites in Ottawa,” explains Dalton of CSCS.

According to Greg Cameron, a member of the CSCS, their consumption site would differ from Vancouver’s Insite clinic because it would allow both injection and inhalation of drugs.

The CSCS advocates for a safe consumption site through the promotion of human rights, speaking about criminal activity, and the preventative measures the clinic would be addressing such as HIV, according to the CSCS website.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, Ontario has the most positive HIV tests of any province in Canada. In 2011, 42.6 per cent of all positive HIV tests come from Ontario.

A safe consumption site gives drug users a safe place to inject, clean needles to use, and provides counseling for drug users. It also helps people in the community by limiting the number of used needles left on the streets by drug users.

Last year, over 6,000 needles and 1,000 crack pipes were recovered from city streets and parks in Ottawa, According to the City of Ottawa website.

The CSCS hosts meetings, open to the general public, to spread awareness and education about their mission statement. They use Facebook, Twitter, and posters through out the community to promote themselves.

On average about six or seven people attend every meeting, said Sarah North, a member of the CSCS and the Women’s Community developer at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa. “The last meeting was pretty big – like 13 people,” she said.

People who are against the idea of a consumption site in Ottawa also attend CSCS events. “At our first event, there was a woman who said ‘I used to feel like this [consumption site] would never come to Ottawa, but now I think it will.’ Our group is changing people’s minds,” said Dalton.

The CSCS raises awareness about benefits of a safe consumption site in Ottawa using the success of the Insite clinic in Vancouver to support their case.

The Vancouver Insite clinic, opened in 2003, is a safe place for drug addicts to not only inject drugs, but also connect with health care services in hopes of recovering from addiction.

With Insite’s installation “fatal overdoses within 500 metres of the site have decreased by 35 per cent compared to 9 per cent in the city overall,” according to Insite’s website.

After a decade of studying the benefits of Insite, it is apparent that “up to half the people who have ever gone there  have gone into some kind of detox or gone into some kind of addiction service,” said Dr. Mark Tyndall, the head of infectious diseases at the Ottawa Hospital and one of the researchers for the evaluation of the supervised injection site in Vancouver.

But one of the biggest differences between Ottawa and Vancouver are the opinions of the mayors. Ottawa mayor Jim Watson, disputes the reported success of the Insite clinic.

“I have talked to a number of people, including police officers, who tell me that the insite program is not working there. They have quadrupled the police resources to try and keep the crime level down and it’s acting as a magnet for even more people to come and engage in illegal activity,” argues Watson.

Tyndall disputes Watson’s claim that crime has increased. “The policing has gone down, not up. Crime has gone down in Vancouver, not up.”

“[Drug addicts] are the people we want to attract the site, that is the whole point,” Tyndall added.

According to Dalton, The perspective of the drug addict is crucial in the decision making of whether or not to install a safe consumption site.

“If we acknowledge that substance abuse is a disability, defined in the DSM-IV [the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] than we are obligated, under anti-discrimination law, to help these people,” said Dalton.

He suggests the way in which Ottawa can help is to provide a safer, healthier environment for them to use drugs.

The one thing that an addict needs to feel is trust and support. “Insite is important because they do care, they are there to help you, it is a safe injection site,” explained Dan StJean, a recovering drug addict.

“The addict on the street doesn’t know that it’s bad, all he knows is that it [the drugs] made him feel good, so we have to be the ones that will help them,” said StJean.

The CSCS has declared their group to be the ones that will help, hosting many events that are free to the community in order to spread awareness of the need for a safe consumption clinic.

TOSCA 2012, the Toronto and Ottawa Supervised Consumption Assessment Study, declared that Ottawa would benefit from the implementation of two supervised injection facilities.

The group came to this conclusion with considerations to the high amounts of the people who use drugs in Ottawa and the high percentage of HIV amongst those people, according to the TOSCA website.

TOSCA has asked the CSCS to host an event to educate the public on the findings of the study, giving them 1000 dollars for funding.

“I see how much struggle is happening there [for drug users] and how it doesn’t necessarily have to be that hard,” declared Dalton, “I just want to help change that.”

By Jessica Thompson
Source: Journalists for Human Rights, Carleton University Chapter