Supervised injection site supporters canvass Sandy Hill

Organizers of a campaign for a supervised injection site at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre are hopeful their proposal will become a reality soon even as canvassers encountered some opposition while promoting the idea in the neighbourhood on Saturday afternoon.

Bill Muirhead who described himself as a "pensioner," said he has found needles on his lawn in Sandy Hill but is philosophically opposed to the idea of a publicly-funded supervised injection site. 

"I'm not totally in favour of this," he told canvassers on Saturday afternoon. "Those drugs are illegal to start with and I don't think we want to sort of encourage people to do this and go in that direction. And, of course, these places are all funded — publicly funded. Somebody has to pay for them."

He added that he was concerned making it easier to use injection drugs might encourage more people to use them.

But canvasser Karim Alameddine explained that showing compassion to people who have addictions and feel marginalized might actually have the opposite effect. 

With support from health workers, people who use drugs can decrease their doses in the ultimate goal of quitting altogether, if they choose, canvasser Chris Dalton said.

"They did find, as well, in Vancouver, that there actually was cost savings," Dalton said, as he handed Muirhead pamphlets with more information. 

"When you factor in medication for HIV, for Hepatitis C, for hospital visits, for policing — that actually when you look at the larger costs to society of drug use, especially drug use among the homeless population, that those are actually more expensive than just creating a site to reduce these things," Dalton added.

Campaign organizer Felicity Feinman has "a lot of hope" that there will soon be a supervised drug consumption site at the Rideau Street health centre as she has been a "change in public opinion" on the matter in recent years.

"Overall, some people do come in prejudices or misunderstandings but I think most negative opinions towards safe consumption can be countered and can be properly explained," she said.

"You always get a bit of the 'not in my backyard' but if you live in Sandy Hill, especially, it's already happening here. People are using drugs and they're using them in an unsafe manner."

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has said that supervised injection sites make a "tremendous amount of sense" from a public health perspective — a major shift from the point of view of the previous Conservative government.

Still, Ottawa Public Health has no plans to open a supervised injection site as it provides a range of harm reduction programs, including needle exchange, substance use counselling and a peer overdose prevention program.

Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau is opposed to a supervised injection site, while Mayor Jim Watson has said he prefers an investment in drug treatment programs. 

Coun. Mathieu Fleury, whose ward includes Sandy Hill, didn't take a firm position on the issue as the neighbourhood consultation process continues.

"Perhaps there's a place for a supervised injection site but it needs to be put in the context of, what's out there for drugs users? How can they get the detox, the rehab, beds and treatment that are needed," he said, adding that wait times are currently "too long."

"The application can't be looked at as stand alone. It has to be looked at as a wider strategy."

Fleury added that a mobile supervised injection site might better serve Ottawa than a single site in one neighbourhood. 

By Chloé Fedio, Matthew Kupfer
Source: CBC News