The provincial government hasn’t swayed from its refusal to introduce supervised-injection sites in Winnipeg, but that hasn't stopped an independent coalition of health workers and advocates from determining whether there's a need for such facilities.

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The provincial government hasn’t swayed from its refusal to introduce supervised-injection sites in Winnipeg, but that hasn't stopped an independent coalition of health workers and advocates from determining whether there's a need for such facilities.

Safe- or supervised-injection sites — hygienic, decriminalized locations where users can take illegal drugs under supervision from medical professionals — already exist in Toronto and Vancouver. However, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government has consistently rejected the notion here, citing a lack of evidence indicating they are needed.

A new Winnipeg Regional Health Authority-led group is now going to research whether drug-consumption spaces are needed in the city, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse (CRISM).

Shelley Marshall, a clinical nurse with the WRHA, says the study will reach out to people with addictions who might use a safe-consumption site. (Jessica Botelho-Urbanski / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Shelley Marshall, a clinical nurse with the WRHA, says the study will reach out to people with addictions who might use a safe-consumption site. (Jessica Botelho-Urbanski / Winnipeg Free Press)

"The government has looked at the existing evidence. They haven’t produced new evidence. So looking at the existing evidence, they’ve said it’s not a clear indication," said Shelley Marshall, a clinical nurse who's representing the WRHA in the independent study group.

The group includes 16 agency partners, among them Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, Sunshine House and the Main Street Project.

"We have a responsibility to ask the question about what can we do to help people who use drugs," Marshall said. "A lot of people are expressing opinions, but nobody’s meaningfully engaged with people who use drugs and said, ‘What would you value?'"

According to a Free Press-Probe Research poll, 69 per cent of 600 Winnipeg adults surveyed said they would generally support the introduction of a safe-injection site in the city. Marshall said she found the results interesting, but would rather hear directly from people who use drugs, not the general public.

Sunshine House executive director Margaret Ormond hopes the study will answer questions about the ultimate goals of a safe-use site. (Andrew Ryan / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Sunshine House executive director Margaret Ormond hopes the study will answer questions about the ultimate goals of a safe-use site. (Andrew Ryan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Her research group will be asking those directly affected by drug use to participate in three feedback sessions (two in August and one in September), as well as interviewing members of front-line agencies about their thoughts on the viability of safe-consumption sites locally.

Ultimately, the group may discover that developing housing for chronic drug users is more important than opening a safe-consumption site, Marshall said, adding the group plans to release its findings before the end of the year.

Margaret Ormond, executive director of community drop-in and resource centre Sunshine House, is part of the study group, which is still in its early stages.

"There are some questions that need to be answered," Ormond said. "What would be the goal of a safe-use site? What would be goals, given the complex picture of drug use in Manitoba? What would it look like?"

Last month, Montreal launched the first mobile supervised injection clinic in North America as part of a series of measures aimed at fighting the opiod crisis. (Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press Files)</p>

Last month, Montreal launched the first mobile supervised injection clinic in North America as part of a series of measures aimed at fighting the opiod crisis. (Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press Files)

After the group conducts interviews, it will compile and analyze its research, then discuss who should receive the findings, she said.

"At this point, there is lots of testimonial information, a little bit of demographic information, but there's not really any hard data... I think what we're trying to do is provide some of that," she said.

Rick Lees, executive director of the Main Street Project, is also looking forward to the study's results. He said what often gets lost in the discussion about safe-consumption sites is the notion they can also save governments money.

"So, if you don’t want to do it because it’s the right thing to do (and) because it saves peoples’ lives and you’re more of an economist, it saves the health system millions of dollars in terms of (treating) transmittable diseases that happen through the exchange of dirty needles (and) from overdosing and death from not knowing what’s in drugs. So it has both an economic and a social benefit," he said.

Nearly 4,000 Canadians died from apparent opioid overdoses in 2017, the majority being related to fentanyl poisoning. That was about 1,000 more than in 2016.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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