Supervised injection site up for debate Monday at Ottawa health board meeting

Ray Harrison has seen people shoot up using water from toilets and puddles.

He's pulled friends who were overdosing in the street to a phone booth to call 911, so they wouldn't be tracked by police.

Now Harrison — a former drug user himself who says he's been clean since the New Year's Day 2014 — says it's time for Ottawa to open a supervised injection site.

He believes they will help prevent people from spreading disease and give them a reason to access health care services, which could start them on a road to breaking their addictions.

"You need to be able to start somewhere and not necessarily when you hit rock bottom, when you get incarcerated," Harrison told CBC News ahead of tonight's Ottawa Board of Health meeting.

The city's medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, is expected to make his case at that meeting for why Ottawa should have supervised injection sites, and why Ottawa Public Health should support agencies that propose to set them up.

Community health centres will be at tonight's Ottawa Board of Health meeting to offer Levy their full support, and Harrison is planning to be there, too.

"I think the safer injection site will save a lot of people, and the community, a lot of grief; along with the police [since] they're not having to chase these people down in somebody's backyard," Harrison said.

For many years Canadians heard only about the contentious Insite program in Vancouver.

That facility, which opened in 2003, has long been the only supervised injection site in the country — but as Levy notes in his report, a 2011 Supreme Court decision that granted Insite an exemption so its clients would not be charged for possessing illegal drugs has had a major impact across the country.

The decision has led agencies in other cities, such as Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton, to consider seeking the same exemption.

Another shift has taken place at the political level. For years, the Conservatives tried to shut down Insite in Vancouver, but current Health Minister Jane Philpott has said such supervised injection sites can save lives.

"I think we've seen a drastic shift in the last few months, for sure," said Stan Kupferschmidt, who runs the harm reduction program at the Somerset West Community Health Centre.

Across Ottawa, centres like Somerset West hand out a total of about 775,000 clean needles each year, and Kupferschmidt says it's bizarre they can distribute needles but not offer addicts a safe space to use them.

"There's a certain element of hypocrisy, when I'm handing a homeless person a syringe kit and I'm telling them they can't use them in the building, they need to go outside in minus-30 degree weather in the winter," he said.

"The time [for supervised injection sites] is definitely now. The time was yesterday, as well."

While Levy and a number of community health centres have been vocal in their support for supervised injection sites in Ottawa, not everyone agrees.

Mayor Jim Watson has maintained the focus should be on providing additional treatment options for drug users, while Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau has expressed concerns about public safety.

Levy, however, told CBC News that once people are presented with the research around safe injection sites, they tend to change their mind.

"The alternative is to turn a blind eye and to have these people leave our care, and go off alone into the night and struggle alone" said Levy.

"For me that's a bigger issue, and one that I can't really live with."

Tonight's health board meeting is scheduled to get underway at 5 p.m.

By Kate Porter
Source: CBC Ottawa