A recent fact-finding trip to Europe by members of the Somerset West Community Health Centre has inspired new discussions among community organizers about safe injection sites in Ottawa.
Two board members and an employee from the centre visited four cities in Germany and the Netherlands last fall to research supervised safe injection sites, says the centre’s executive director, Jack McCarthy.
The centre paid for the trip using leftover reserve money from donors. None of the funds came from major funders such as the city or from the Champlain Local Health Integration Network.
Supervised injection sites allow users to take illicit drugs under the care of health professionals. In September 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Insite, a supervised injection site in Vancouver, could continue to operate legally. While the health centre has learned a lot from Insite, McCarthy says they wanted a broader portrayal of supervised injection sites.
While the staff took the trip to gather information, McCarthy says, the centre does not have an official stance on the sites.
“We were specifically looking at safe consumption sites as one strategy in a range of harm reduction programs,” McCarthy says. “That’s what we really focused on. How did they work, and how was the community engaged before they were set up?”
The employees found that the sites in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht, in the Netherlands, and Frankfurt, Germany, moved drug users out of public spaces and into medical facilities. These cities saw crime rates and disease transmission decrease. Public support for the sites increased over time, McCarthy says.
McCarthy says the health centre hopes to promote discussion about sites in Ottawa.
“Everyone wants to live in a safe community, for sure,” he says. “But then how do we reach out to (drug users), often with mental health and addiction issues, and create the right kind of approaches that minimize the harm to the community and minimized the harm to them and to others, and that’s what we’ve tried to do here.”
The Centretown Community Health Centre is also gathering information on supervised injection sites, says executive director Simone Thibault. With high intravenous transmission rates of HIV and Hepatitis C among drug users, she says the community must be more involved in these talks.
“We all need to be better informed and educated,” she says.
Despite these centre’s efforts to promote discussion for supervised injection sites, there is still staunch opposition to them from city officials and community organizers.
The Ottawa Police Service is “dead against” them, says Insp. Chris Rheaume, because they will make it more difficult to arrest drug offenders. Instead, Rheaume says communities should focus on teaching children about drugs in a more effective way.
“Every dollar that we, and I’m going to use the word ‘waste,’ on a supervised injection site could be a dollar that we could be putting toward educating the public.”