Researchers behind a four-year scientific study have recommended the establishment of two safe injection sites for Ottawa which they say would help drug users and reduce drug use in the capital.
Dr. Ahmed Bayoumi and Dr. Carol Strike presented the findings of the Toronto and Ottawa Supervised Consumption Assessment on Thursday evening. The researchers participated in a panel discussion with representatives of the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa and the Drug Users Advocacy League, as part of Ottawa AIDS Awareness Week.
“A safe injection site is a legally sanctioned health facility where people can use illicit drugs under the supervision of nurses,” said Strike. “We have not found them to increase drug use.”
Strike said establishing such a site would improve the health of Ottawa drug users, reduce public drug use, and save money for both the health care system and city maintenance. Bayoumi and Strike said there are more than 90 such sites internationally.
Ottawa currently has the highest rate of new HIV infections among intravenous drug users in Ontario.
The issue of safe injection sites has been controversial in Canada. Insite, the only legal supervised injection site in North America, opened in Downtown Eastside Vancouver in 2003. It has been credited with preventing 35 HIV infections each year, saving $8.7 million in health care costs.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled to exempt Insite from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, a decision Bayoumi and Strike said sets a precedent for establishing a similar site in Ottawa.
“Over 50 per cent of people in Toronto and Ottawa support these sites,” said Strike. “There’s a core group in both cities who will never support safe injection sites, regardless of purpose for which it was designed or success.”
Bayoumi and Strike recommend two safe injections sites for Ottawa and three for Toronto. They suggest multiple sites would dilute the potential negative effects on the neighbourhoods.
They also recommend these sites be integrated with currently existing organizations which already have relationships with drug users. This would increase the anonymity of clients and cut costs. Insite, which is not an integrated facility, has an annual budget of $2.9 million, which would be greatly reduced without administration costs such as rent. Mandated programs, such as counseling, were found to be a deterrent to potential clients.
“A lot of people provided conditional support. They said they’d support the facility if they had proof it worked,” said Bayoumi. “So we recommend specified objectives, such as number of users and how often, and rates of HIV, Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B over time.”
He said if the facility sets objectives, it can be easily evaluated to see if it works and what needs to be altered. At a community level, issues such as public litter, visible drug use and drug-related crimes around the site should also be evaluated.
Tarah Heighton, who works with the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa, said she supports safe injection sites because they acknowledge the reality of addiction.
“The ugly truth about addiction is that it exists because we as a society have failed,” she said. “The greatest way we as a society have failed is that in times of extreme pain, those people who choose to do drugs – to turn to them as a way to feel better – instead of offering a hand to help, we tend to ignore and judge.”
Heighton, a former intravenous drug user who has been sober for one year, said the Ottawa community already has many services for drug users that have helped her, but it needs to do more.
“Harm reduction as a policy exists because it acknowledges that some people are not ready to change their ways and will continue to use drugs,” she said.
Police in Toronto and Ottawa vehemently object to a safe injection site, but support other harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and methadone clinics.
Bayoumi and Strike said their report was not supported by the health minister or Premier Dalton McGuinty.
“I think the way forward is not through their endorsement, but from the community level up rather than from the decision makers down,” said Bayoumi.
A petition to support a safe injection site by the Campaign for Safer Consumption Sites in Ottawa has garnered 1,200 signatures as of Nov. 29.