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Montreal public health director recommends safe injection sites for drug addicts

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MONTREAL - Montreal's public-health director is recommending the creation of three supervised injection sites for drug addicts to be operated by the health-care system and certain community groups.

Dr. Richard Lessard said Friday that safe injection services are needed in Canada's second-largest city to help address the high death rate of intravenous drug users and the elevated rates of hepatitis C and HIV.

He said about 70 intravenous addicts die unnecessarily from drug-related causes in Montreal every year.

"We know from a public-health standpoint that if they can inject themselves safely... with safe syringes, they will not get the diseases that we want them to stop transmitting to other people," Lessard told a news conference after he released a new report on the issue.

Following a Supreme Court of Canada decision to keep the Insite clinic open in Vancouver, Quebec's health minister gave the green light in October to safe injection sites — as long as there is a consensus on how they will be operated.

Insite, which records 800 visits a day by people injecting their own heroin and cocaine, opened in 2003 to curb overdose deaths and mounting HIV rates in Vancouver.

In addition to the three fixed sites, Lessard is also recommending the creation of a mobile team of nurses to be deployed in neighbourhoods with the most needs.

Lessard believes the Montreal clinics will be accepted by citizens, particularly if they're run through established institutions.

The City of Montreal backed Lessard's recommendations Friday, but it stressed that such services must be offered by medical institutions.

"For us, it's essential that the (safe injection sites) are offered in a medical environment to fully ensure the safety of users," Jocelyn Ann Campbell, a member of the city's executive committee, said in a statement.

"For Montreal, the challenge is to ensure the maintenance of a serene and inclusive social climate all while coming to the aid of people in need."

Lessard's suggestions were also met with opposition.

A coalition of citizens groups cited concerns that future safe injection sites could attract more drug users to priority neighbourhoods highlighted in the report. Gaetan Paquet, a spokesman for one of the groups, said he wouldn't have a problem with the proposals if it meant opening these clinics across the province.

Lessard believes the Montreal centres could open their doors sometime over the next year, as long as they get the necessary support from provincial health authorities.

He said the sites would not be expensive to operate and would save public money by cutting down on emergency-room visits, 911 calls and the demand on ambulance services.

Lessard's report revealed that 60 per cent of drug addicts say they've experienced an overdose, while 24 per cent of those users have overdosed five or more times.

He said the number of deaths of intravenous drug users has climbed "significantly" in recent years — from an average of 51 per year between 2000 and 2005 to 72 annually between 2006 and 2009.

Quebec City is also looking at the possibility of opening safe injection centres.

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