Online Exclusives

Photo: CC, Todd Huffman.

Supervised injection services give users stepping stone needed to seek treatment

With a proposal and consultations in progress to create a safe injections facility at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, where addicts could use drugs under medical supervision, Ottawa could be the first city in Ontario to offer this service. However, the response to this project has been worrisome at best, with ignorant concerns from civic representatives becoming highly publicized.

Ottawa mayor Jim Watson has touted views of opposition to safe injection sites, emphasizing the need for taxpayer dollars to be put towards addiction treatment instead, while Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau told the Ottawa Citizen that the concentration of drug users and dealers might result in an increase in crime rates in Sandy Hill.

However, studies done on Insite, a supervised injection facility in Vancouver, have found that the “reported benefits of supervised injecting facilities on drug users’ high risk behaviours and on public order do not seem to have been offset by negative community impacts.” As such, it’s time we demand a more informed and open-minded dialogue from the leaders of our city.

Despite the success of these studies, it is important to note that safe injection sites are a relatively new concept in practice for Canadians—the first one opened in 2003—and with this in mind some safety concerns are not unreasonable given the limited exposure.

So why draw the line at the commentary given by Watson and Bordeleau?

Bordeleau’s comments overlook the fact that the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre already offers needle exchange services through their Oasis program. Seeing as this current program also acts to  concentrate drug users and traffickers in one area, the idea that crime will suddenly increase with the introduction of a safe injection site at this same location seems exaggerated to say the least.

Watson claims that addiction treatment and shortening wait times must remain the focus of public funding. However, according to a report from Ottawa Public Health, deaths in Ottawa from overdose have remained at around 40 annually. Evidently, this issue begs for a new approach, and this is why we must be open minded to safe injection sites.

Moreover, in a 2011 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, research evidence showed Vancouver’s safe injection facility decreased local overdose deaths by more than one third, and increased the amount of users seeking addiction treatment.

It seems safe injection sites in Vancouver have become effective stepping stones to addiction treatment. To understand why this transitional step is necessary to provide, it’s imperative that we remember drug addiction is a mental illness.

Unlike other mental illnesses, addiction isn’t only tied to stigma and social ostracization—drug addicts also face the constant risk of incarceration. Due to its illicit nature, drug addiction has been left behind in the mainstream conversation about mental illness, a topic that is becoming increasingly acceptable to speak openly about and seek treatment for without major consequences.

Drug users, however, can face life-changing consequences for seeking support. Perhaps this is why we haven’t seen a decline in Ottawa’s drug overdose rate by simply funding addiction treatment. With a health-care environment sensitive to the differences in this mental illness, the stigma is reduced, and the rate at which users access treatment is improved—as evidenced by the fact that safe injection sites in Vancouver were found to increase the numbers of users seeking treatment.

A safe, introductory health-care service, where users have the freedom to explore their options without fear of being charged, is desperately needed in Ottawa. By allowing addicts to use drugs in a space where they are surrounded by health-care professionals and treatment pamphlets, seeking addiction treatment becomes a step that’s much less dramatic and scary.

So while it might be tempting to point to this initiative as inviting crime or a misallocation of funds,  there are existing programs in Sandy Hill for drug users and minimal evidence suggesting that crime will be an issue with this new safe injection site. It’s time we shift the dialogue, and demand that our civic leaders do more research before taking a resistant stance.