Machines dispense harm reduction supplies to front lines of need
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Palm print-scanning dispensers for needles, naloxone and other medications could be the future of harm reduction work in Manitoba.
Machines that dispense such supplies are being set up by a First Nations-led organization seeking to use the technology to combat inequality in the traditional health-care system.
Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin Inc. has placed its first two dispensers at the site of a public washroom in downtown Winnipeg, and plans a total of eight machines in Winnipeg, Churchill and northern Manitoba communities during a year-long pilot project, chief executive officer Dr. Barry Lavallee said.
“It’s trying to make self-advocacy a priority for people whose lives are really judged and challenged harshly in our society. We’re trying to make their lives better.”
The project has been in the works for more than a year. On Monday, Lavallee said several recent inquiries have come from communities and organizations also interested in hosting a kiosk.
The sites will dispense supplies such as clean needles, condoms, sanitary pads, and anti-opioid overdose naloxone kits by being programmed to read palm prints, similar to fingerprint-reading technology common on many smartphones.
They can also be used to store personal medications (such as blood pressure or diabetes prescriptions) for people who don’t have stable housing or convenient access to a pharmacy.
Lavallee said the dispensers won’t function as consumption sites; they won’t give out supplies of narcotics or street drugs.
There is potential for the machines to dispense HIV prevention medication (PrEP) and medicinal cannabidiol (CBD) — there’s some evidence CBD can help calm the effects of methamphetamine, Lavallee said.
The pilot project is being funded by the federal government, in partnership with a Nova Scotia-based company Dispension Industries Inc.
Data collected will be shared with local harm reduction agencies, Lavallee said, so they can track the demand for supplies.
The provincial government is not involved in the project and the palm print scanners are not linked to any Manitoba health card data. The kiosks need Wi-Fi to operate, so that limits rollout to communities that have stable internet services, advocates said.
The health-care system isn’t built for people who are “living precariously,” who don’t have homes or have experienced racism and oppression, Lavallee said.
The project is a way for them to get what they need independently, he added.
“When people in need come in, sometimes they’re angry, sometimes their needs might not be met by a health-care system — and sometimes we have great service-delivery organizations that do a really tremendous job. But this machine will offer an independent person the ability to get the things they need by themselves, without having to go through a whole litany of applications, and questions, questions, questions.”
The Main Street Project is involved and excited about its potential, executive director Jamil Mahmood said. Such sites could help people in shelters who can’t keep large quantities of prescription medication on them, he said.
“We often support public health in doing different medication administration to people who are staying at shelter, so this could be a way to help that process as well. So, we see it as a really great tool.”
As the local street drug supply becomes more toxic, more doses of naloxone are needed to reverse the effects of an overdose, Mahmood said. Shelter staff are on the front lines of the overdose crisis, but response and harm reduction need to be treated as health issues and funded accordingly.
“While we’re excited about this, it comes with a lot of tragedy and sadness and seeing how many people we’ve lost in this last year to overdose deaths,” he said.
“Addiction is something that impacts everybody in our city in some way, shape or form and so we need to be providing health responses to these health crises.”
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.