Proposed federal rules throw up hurdles for supporters of Ottawa drug-injection site

Supporters of an Ottawa supervised injection site say they are disappointed that the federal government is politicizing a health issue with hurdles that would make it harder to open one here. But they remain undeterred in their push to bring one to Ottawa.

“It is the right thing to do. We know that this is an important intervention and we should continue to move ahead,” said Dr. Mark Tyndall, head of infectious diseases at The Ottawa Hospital, and a strong supporter of an Ottawa safe injection site.

Groups pushing for a site here say there is a need — Ottawa has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the country among injection drug users, public drug use in parts of the city is skyrocketing and overdoses are also on the rise. According to a recent survey, there is also solid public support in Lowertown, where much of the public drug use is concentrated and where a site would likely be located if it is ever approved.

But those who have been working to open a supervised drug consumption site in Ottawa say rules outlined in a bill tabled by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq on Thursday would seem to make it almost impossible in a city in which both the mayor and police chief have publicly said they oppose such a site. The bill, which lays out the criteria for getting a safe injection site, says the federal minister of health, who must approve exemptions to drug laws that would allow any future sites, should consider the views of local government, police, provincial politicians and health officials as well as the public. It is unclear whether the objections of a single group or members of the public — even if not directly affected by a site — could scuttle an application.

The new federal rules are in response to a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that found closing Vancouver’s safe injection site would violate the Charter rights of people who need access to such sites to reduce the risk of blood-borne infections and overdoses.

Tyndall said the same health needs exist in Ottawa and the new rules proposed by the health minister, who emphasized law and order when she announced them Thursday, violate the spirit of that Supreme Court ruling.

“The government is making up new rules under the guise of public safety ... this is about people’s health,” he said.

“It misses the whole point of why we want to create a supervised injection site in Ottawa — because there is way too much HIV transmission and overdoses and too many people not engaged in any kind of care.”

Tyndall said it is a myth that addiction treatment is an alternative to such sites, because there are not enough treatment programs and it is hard to engage many drug users without the help of a safe injection site.

Rob Boyd, director of the Oasis program at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and a key proponent of an Ottawa supervised injection site, said his visits to safe injection sites in Europe have convinced him that such a program would benefit Ottawa. What is more, he found that drug-affected communities embrace supervised drug centres. “It is not the big scary thing they thought it would be.”

Typically, he said, communities that have injection drug users are among the biggest supporters of such sites. “You see an improvement in some of the public disorder issues related to drug use ... you now see it on streets, in parking garages, on front porches.”

Boyd said he talked to a police officer at Vancouver’s Insite who said it had made his job easier. “It becomes a source of pride to the local community.”

Boyd added that he is concerned the new criteria to get a site requires positive input from local politicians. “It is not a fair place to put local politicians,” he said, adding that good public health decisions and good political decisions are not always the same thing — which is one reason local public health boards are arms length from elected politicians.

Meanwhile, a group called Campaign for Safer Consumption Sites in Ottawa said many residents of Lowertown strongly support such a site in their area. Seventy eight per cent of 100 people surveyed said they support a site.

Greg Cameron of the organization said he worries the federal government is counting on NIMBY-ism from the broader community, which is likely not as supportive as the immediate neighbourhood, to prevent any new sites from opening.

“I think they are trying to pass the buck and rely on public fears and the stigma against drug users as an excuse for denying them health services. I think that’s shameful.”

By Elizabeth Payne
Source: Ottawa Citizen