Ottawa ‘needs safe injection site to reduce HIV rate’

Former drug users and the families and friends of the many Ottawans lost to drug overdoses renewed calls for a safe injection site in the city Friday during International Overdose Awareness Day.

“As we are seeing more people turn to heroin, my concern is that these overdoses could increase,” said Dr. Lynne Leonard, a social epidemiologist and Research Scientist in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Ottawa.

“By providing a supervised injection site we would reduce the personal risk and community costs of drug use,” she said.

Upwards of 885 people die of drug overdose every year in Ontario, Dr. Leonard added. On April 9, a report created over four years by University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital researchers concluded that both Ottawa and Toronto would benefit from multiple safe injection sites similar to Vancouver’s InSite project.

“I see InSite as a really useful thing,” said Carl Reinboth, a former user who is now an addictions worker in Ottawa. “It would give you cleanliness. There’s referrals from staff and other junkies to talk to. It’s like group therapy.”

“It would give them dignity and time to think,” he said. “After the first few months of using heroin, it’s no fun at all.”

Soon after the report was issued, Ottawa’s mayor Jim Watson shot down the idea, saying it would be better to invest in drug rehabilitation and treatment programs rather than safe injection sites.

Police Chief Charles Bordeleau echoed Watson’s opinion adding that safe injection sites would attract an undesirable criminal element.

That’s the whole point, said Dr. Leonard. “This is a medical decision and I’m disappointed in the stance the city has taken,” she said. “If you look at some of the data around unsafe injecting, the strain on medical resources is huge. It involves the police, ambulances and hospital system.”

A high number of people in Ottawa involved in injecting drugs leads to other diseases, she said. “I direct a HIV prevention team. As a result of 15 years of research it’s very clear to me we have a high level of HIV in the city.”

A safe injection site would work wonders to reduce those numbers. An Ottawa Public Health report release in June 2011 showed that Ottawa’s HIV rate jumped 50 per cent that year over 2010.

“A lot of people we’ve worked with and helped with our research have died,” said Dr. Leonard. “I have come to know them as friends. Their deaths are so needless.”

By Graham Lanktree