The question of whether a supervised injection should be opened to address the city’s drug problem has come up in Winnipeg’s mayoral race, but one advocate for the sites says they shouldn’t be a political issue.
“I don’t believe that safe consumption should be really politicized. I think it’s a health issue,” said Rick Lees, executive director of the Main Street Project.
The shelter and outreach program has been open about its hopes to one day establish a safe consumption facility in Winnipeg.
A supervised injection site, sometimes referred to as a safe injection or consumption site, allows drug users to have their drugs tested before they take them under the supervision of trained medical staff.
The goal is to prevent fatal overdoses, provide addictions counselling and prevent the spread of harmful infections.
Lees says Main Street Project is already offering harm reduction services by distributing needles, but that doesn’t go far enough.
“We’ve seen our harm reduction distribution go from a few hundred needles a month to 7,000 a month and yet we know they have no place to use those needles, and so we find them on the streets and in bus shacks,” he said.
“What I do know is for the chronic long-term user, who we’re giving 7,000 needles to, to simply go out and sit in a back lane is really implying that you’re doing half the treatment.”
Supervised consumption sites are federally regulated by Health Canada, which provides the facility with an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
There are several sites throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
“We’re running safe injection sites in almost every province but Manitoba,” said Lees.
“If you ask any medical officer of health in some of those other provinces, they’d basically say that unless you think that the DNA makeup of Manitobans is different than other Canadians, then it would be as effective here as it is in other provinces,” he said.
No safe way to consume meth: mayoral candidate
Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government has been reluctant to commit to a supervised injection site, despite several calls for one.
“When we looked at the Manitoba statistics, it’s different than you might see in Vancouver, where there’s a high concentration of opioid users, for example, in a fairly small area,” then health minister Kelvin Goertzen said earlier this year.
“And in Manitoba, the vast majority of people that are dying from the use of opioids — more than 70 per cent, I understand — are dying at home. So they’re not dying on the street, necessarily.”
But with a civic election coming Oct. 24, some of Winnipeg’s mayoral hopefuls have also weighed in on the issue.
At a mayoral forum earlier this week, incumbent mayoral candidate Brian Bowman said he would not rule out the possibility of allowing a supervised consumption site within the city, even if the provincial government doesn’t allow for such a facility.
While not addressing supervised consumption sites directly, candidate Jenny Motkaluk has previously said she would aim to divert people high on meth away from hospitals and into the Main Street Project instead.
Most recently, mayoral candidate Tim Diack told Marcy Markusa, host of CBC’s Information Radio, that while he supports harm reduction approaches for opiates, he doesn’t believe they work for meth.
“Methamphetamine is not a drug, it’s a chemical. It’s like saying we’ll have a safe sniffing location for people who are addicted to sniffing gasoline,” Diack said.
“You cannot safely consume gasoline or methamphetamine.”
Lees said Diack’s views are misguided.
“I would politely disagree. That’s inaccurate. There’s no evidence behind what that statement suggests,” said Lees.
“In fact, the danger of meth is using it unsupervised.”
Lees said political ideologies aside, the decision to open a supervised injection site should come down to saving lives.
“At the end of the day, if it demonstrates that it saves lives, then it’s the logical step, regardless of the people that decide they don’t want to be part of it,” said Lees.
“I think it’s part of a continuum of health care, and instead we’re trying to plunk it down as something it’s not.”
Lees said he welcomes the opportunity for dialogue with the province, and in the meantime is participating in a working group with other stakeholders on the issue.
What can Winnipeg learn from Vancouver?
One of the models Lees is looking at for Winnipeg is the Insite facility run by B.C.’s Vancouver Coastal Health.
Insite has been offering supervised consumption of several types of drugs for 15 years and has provided more than 6,400 overdose interventions, without any deaths, according to the health authority.
“People sometimes think that it’s a way of enabling drug use but really what we’re doing is trying to reduce the harm associated, because some of the harms are serious,” said Vancouver Coastal Health’s Dr. Mark Lysyshyn.
Insite also refers clients to its detox facility, Onsite, which is connected to the consumption site.
Lysyshyn said supervising intravenous drug users also prevents serious infections and has a positive impact on the surrounding community.
“We see less public injection, less needles and other litter related to injection, and it doesn’t increase crime in the area,” he said.
The goal, Lysyshyn said, is to keep people alive so they can eventually seek treatment.
With the prevalence of drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil in recent years, supervised injection sites are more important than ever, he said.
“There is no rise in drug usage. The problem that’s going on right now is a problem where people are overdosing more frequently — they’re not using drugs more frequently,” he said.
“It’s that the drugs have become very dangerous to use.”
Lysyshyn said any notions that consumption sites could negatively impact a community are misguided.
“You wouldn’t put this in a neighbourhood that didn’t need it. Typically these types of facilities go into places where there is a problem with drug use,” he said.
“Often they improve the community because previous to having a facility like this, people might be injecting drugs in public, they might be overdosing in hallways or alleyways.
“If those problems exist, then this is a facility that will help with those problems.”
Lysyshyn said Vancouver experienced its share of opposition to the idea 15 years ago as well.
“Over the years the general population in Vancouver and the police here have really come to support these sites … even though there was some controversy when it was being established.”