New dispensing machines will use handprint technology to deliver harm reduction supplies in Manitoba

Harm reduction supplies will soon be more readily available in select areas of Winnipeg through dispensing machines that can identify people by the palm of their hand.

Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin, an organization that works to improve health care for northern Manitoba First Nations, has eight new dispensing machines that will be used in part to distribute harm reduction tools such as naloxone kits and clean needles, said the organization’s chief executive officer. 

To start, KIM is working to locate the machines in Winnipeg and Churchill and maybe a few communities in between, said Dr. Barry Lavallee.

“It gives an individual … a real sense of independence in keeping themselves safe and living safely. That’s really the whole purpose of harm reduction,” Lavallee said.

“It’s really using a technology to support people in a harm reduction way.”

A man with a shaved head smiles, wrapped in a colourful patterned blanket.
Dr. Barry Lavallee, shown here in a 2022 file photo after being honoured with a star blanket, said his organization, Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin, will be monitoring how effective the machines are over the next year. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The machines work by using someone’s palm identity to allow them to gain access to certain slotted areas, he explained.

“There will be a variation of models that go on across Manitoba,” said Lavallee. In the initial rollout, there may be differences from site to site in who has access to the machines, and the number of people who do, he said.

Manitoba has been seeing an increasing number of overdose deaths in recent years. According to data from the province’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 407 Manitobans died from overdoses in 2021, up from a record 372 overdose deaths in 2020.

Preliminary numbers for 2022 up to the month of December show there 377 drug-related deaths in Manitoba to that point.

Main Street Project ‘pretty excited’ about pilot

While Lavallee said it’s too early to say where all eight of the dispensing machines will be situated, the executive director of Winnipeg’s Main Street Project said he believes his organization, which works with vulnerable people, will get two at its site.

Jamil Mahmood said the pilot will give Main Street Project an opportunity to distribute harm reduction supplies in a new and different way.

“We’re pretty excited about kind of piloting them in our shelter space,” he said.   

Four dispensing machines lined up with KIM's Logo.
To start, KIM is working to locate the machines in Winnipeg and Churchill and possibly a few communities in between, said Lavallee. (Submitted by Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin)

People are dying from a toxic drug supply, said Mahmood, and while naloxone can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose, the amount needed to do so has been increasing in recent years. 

“We know that it’s taking more… naloxone every time,” he said.

“If we look at five years ago you could, you know, revive someone overdosing with one or two shots of naloxone, and now we’re seeing … eight to 10 [shots] in some situations to just bring people back,” as more toxic drugs find their way onto the streets.

“It’s scary to see what’s getting cut into drugs now.”

Lavallee said part of the project also involves looking at how well the machines work for dispensing certain medications, such as diabetes medicine. 

Main Street Project is also looking at how it can use the machines to support people who use the non-profit’s shelter and require certain medications, said Mahmood.

Main Street Project executive director Jamil Mahmood stands in front of a Main Street Project sign.
Main Street Project executive director Jamil Mahmood says the machines offer ‘an innovative approach.’ (Walther Bernal/CBC)

“When folks are homeless or using shelters … you have to keep all your possessions on you so, you know, managing things like keeping all your medication on you and stuff like that can be challenging,” he said.

The dispensing machines could offer “safe medication storage only accessible by the people themselve through a palm scan,” said Mahmood.

“I think it’s an innovative approach.”

Model could move to other communities

Mahmood said if Main Street Project finds the machines work well to meet needs in Winnipeg, the model could be used in remote and rural communities. 

If Main Street Project ends up with two machines at its site, one would likely be used for the harm reduction supplies and another would be put in a more secure area of the building and be used for some medications, said Mahmood.

He’s not sure when they’ll be in use at the site. 

A large grey machine with an ATM-style screen and the logo of Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawins on the front is shown.
Lavallee said he’s also looking at how the dispensing machines could be used in future to help deliver a safer supply of prescribed medications for people who use substances. (Submitted by Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin)

Lavallee said his organization will be monitoring how the machines function and how effective they are over the next year. 

“We want the community itself in its evaluation to say, ‘Are these kinds of machines part of how we see our lives going forward,'” he said. 

Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin is working in partnership with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to improve access to care, Lavallee added.

“We want the public who need it the most to have access,” he said. “It would be preferable [to have harm reduction access] 24/7, but we don’t have the budgets to accommodate that. But let’s start — let’s make it known to the community that this is for you.” 

Lavallee said he’s also looking at how the dispensing machines could be used in future to help deliver a safer supply of prescribed medications for people who use substances, but there’s still a lot of work to be done first.