Ottawa groups applying for supervised drug injection site in the capital

Ottawa may become home to Canada’s second safe injection site as early as next year if Health Canada approves a local group’s application.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre is working with partners on a proposal to exempt them from Canada’s drug laws and allow them to open a supervised drug injection facility.

The group, along with the Drug User Advocacy League and doctors from the Ottawa Hospital, hope to complete the application by December. The group expects an answer from Health Canada as early as six months after applying.

Rob Boyd, a director at the Sandy Hill centre, said Ottawa has the highest HIV rates among drug users of any Ontario municipality and getting the service is vital.

“We have a large and unstable number of people who have complex addiction issues who are having unsupervised consumption in the community,” said Boyd.

Ottawa’s facility would operate similarly to Vancouver’s Insite, currently the only safe injection site in Canada. For a decade Insite has provided clean needles and a supervised place to inject illegal drugs under a federal exemption.

According to Boyd, the Ottawa group feels a sense of urgency to submit their proposal due to concerns over the proposed Bill C-65, which would add further restrictions to getting approval for a safe injection site. That bill effectively died when Parliament was prorogued earlier this month.

However, Boyd said the group is concerned the legislation will be resurrected relatively quickly once Parliament returns.

“We want to get our application in prior to a new law being put in place that’ll just push it further away from us.”

Bill C-65 would make it difficult for any proposal to success without support from local police and politicians. Both the Ottawa police and Mayor Jim Watson have voiced objections.

“Our opinion is that we don’t want one in Ottawa,” said Insp. Chris Rheaume, And Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau is “not for it at all,” Rheaume said.

The police take issue with the crime and drug trafficking supervised injection sites attract.

“They’re not going to the bank machine and getting their money out to go buy their dope from the drug dealers. They actually have to steal stuff, they have to do robberies,” said Rheaume.

But the city and law enforcement officials are opposed by health care professionals determined to see an Ottawa application succeed.

Dr. Mark Tyndall, head of infectious diseases at The Ottawa Hospital and among those helping with the application, feels strongly the group will prevail.

“We have very high rates of HIV in the city, very high overdose rates, a lot of people that are disconnected from any health services. This is exactly what the supervised injection site addresses,” said Tyndall, who was also involved with Insite when it opened in Vancouver.

Boyd said the group is gathering the last bits of information needed for the application, the contents of which will be based on the factors the Supreme Court has determined should be considered when granting an exemption to federal drug laws.

Those factors include identifying evidence of local need, evaluating the impact on crime rates and considering expressions of opposition and support in the community. The applicants must also talk to the local communities and explain why they want the site.

Part of their efforts to meet those criteria will involve a mock safe-injection site, which is meant to “demystify” how it would operate if approved, according to Tyndall. Speakers will be present at the opening of the mock site at 216 Murray St. on Sept. 30 to provide information and answer questions from the public.

The group is also collecting data on community support, including information from a survey by the volunteer-run group Campaign for Safer Consumption Sites in Ottawa. Group founder Christopher Dalton said while final numbers are still being calculated the survey’s results will show a majority of businesses and residences in the Market support a supervised injection site. Final results will be released at the mock site opening.

A location for the proposed site is still being determined, but Boyd said to have the greatest impact it has to be located close to places where drugs are already openly being used.

For Ottawa resident Michael Raymond, 47, the site can’t open soon enough.

In 2002, Raymond contracted Hepatitis C from a dirty needle while in prison and lost his vision. He says he was able to “get clean” because he receives money from the government due to his blindness. But many of his friends weren’t so lucky.

“A friend of mine, his name was Abby. We were all in the kitchen and I decide to go check on Abby in the bedroom. He was purple and hard as a rock. Frozen.”

Raymond said his friend’s death and his own blindness might have been prevented if there were a safe place for drug users to go.

“They’re going to use (drugs) anyways, you can’t stop that. It’s better to know what’s going on,” he said. “Diseases spread like wildfire on the streets.”

But while the advocacy group claims their survey shows support in the Market overall, it’s far from universal. One resident, Louise Longtin, said she’s “totally against” any supervised injection site in the neighbourhood. According to Longtin, a managed alcohol program on King Edward Avenue and a nearby methadone clinic already attract the homeless.

“We should try to help to cure them and not feed their addiction,” Longtin said.

Tyndall hopes the government and community prove willing to let the group approach addiction from a new direction.

“I’m just really disappointed that it’s become such a lightning rod for the government,” said Tyndall. “It’s not going to make any difference to anybody except the drug users themselves.”

By Micki Cowan
Source: Ottawa Citizen