It’s time to reconsider safe injection sites


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WINNIPEG already has drug injection sites. They’re also known as bus shelters.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/02/2022 (469 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WINNIPEG already has drug injection sites. They’re also known as bus shelters.

People using drugs regulary squat in several such shelters, mostly downtown. The evidence is as clear as the litter of used needles, empty vials and bags of solvents scattered around the structures. The human casualties are seen first-hand by emergency crews called to attend these shelters, sometimes several times a day, to attempt to save people from their self-administered suffering.

Coun. Sherri Rollins believes there’s something wrong with a city that continues to let such misery transpire on prominent public display in its see-through shelters, as if drug users are in an aquarium for passersby to gawk at. She believes Winnipeg can do better and she’s pushing for the establishment of a safe consumption site.

She might feel like she’s pushing uphill, against the wind. Proposals for safe consumption sites have been turned down in many juridictions, including Manitoba, although there are more than 100 such facilities in Europe and they’ve have started to catch on in some cities in North America.

One misconception is that the sites provide drugs. They don’t. They provide drug users with sevices such as clean needles and a place to inject with medical staff nearby in case of an overdose. Staff try to build relationships of trust with drug users, and possibly lead them to help for their addictions.

To get up-close evidence to support her attempt to bring a measure of humanity to Winnipeg’s growing problem with drugs, Rollins went to Vancouver recently to tour a facility called Insite, which is North America’s oldest safe injection site.

What she saw at Insite are 13 semi-private booths near a table offering supplies of needles and sterile water. On-hand staff can’t administer drugs, but can offer advice about safer ways to inject. They stay nearby in case of adverse reactions to injections.

After injecting, people can go to the Insite’s “chill-out lounge” to relax on couches with coffee and, if they choose, talk to staff and counsellors about such problems as medical issues, mental illness, lack of housing and the possibility of addiction treatment. The building also includes a detox centre, community programs and transitional housing,

Insite’s 18-year history of helping drug users has given it the first-hand knowledge to dispel myths and misunderstandings about safe consumption sites. It’s been the subject of several academic studies because it has reliable data produced by rigorous evaluation, which was a condition of its exemption from federal drug laws when it first opened as a pilot project.

Questions that are commonly asked at Insite and other safe consumption sites include:

Shouldn’t people with addictions just go to hospitals or medical clinics? The shame of drug use keeps many addicts away from mainstream health services, except in emergencies.

Do safe consumption sites encourage drug use? No. An academic study of more than 1,000 participants found that only a single individual began injection drug use on InSite premises. By comparison, countless users were steered toward addiction treatment.

Would the money be better spent on drug prevention and enforcement of drug laws? Studies show for every dollar spent on safe consumption sites, five dollars are saved in emergency services and emergency hospital care for drug users.

Even a body as responsible as Health Canada notes safe consumption sites save lives, connect people to addictions treatment, reduce public drug use, lessen the spread of infectious diseases and cut demand on emergency medical services.

Rollins seems to accept it’s initially unrealistic to expect Winnipeg to land a facility as grand as the Insite location she visited in Vancouver. She recognizes provincial funding is essential, and the Manitoba government has previously declined funding for such a site.

She proposes initial baby steps. Winnipeg could start with a safe-consumption services within a facility that already exists. The province could provide drug-testing strips to various facilities to determine whether drugs are spiked with contaminants.

To join Rollins in her vision will require some Manitobans to shift their understanding of drug abuse, replacing idealism with pragmatism. Drug abuse can’t be eliminated, so the focus should be on making it safer and saving lives.

Manitoba recorded 370 drug-related deaths in 2022, the most recent year for which numbers were compiled. That’s an average of more than one per day.

Those are 370 reasons to listen to Rollins. They weren’t just drug addicts, they were human beings.

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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