New report suggests Ottawa drug users would benefit from safe injection site

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By Andrew Duffy

Ottawa Citizen

May 8th 2015

A new study suggests a significant number of Ottawa’s most serious drug addicts would use a safe injection site if one ever opened in this city.

The study, prepared for a group that wants to bring at least two safe injection sites to Ottawa, found that 75.4 per cent of surveyed addicts said they would be prepared to use a facility where they could inject drugs with clean needles under medical supervision.

That level of participation would reduce overdose deaths and offer huge health benefits to drug users, who suffer high rates of HIV and Hepatitis-C, while also improving the safety of downtown streets made hazardous by discarded needles, advocates said Thursday at a community meeting held to discuss the study.

“I think it shows that, contrary to popular belief, drug users are actually interested in their health,” said Rob Boyd, director of a program at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre that offers harm reduction and health services to drug users and sex workers.

“I think it shows they’re interested in ways of using drugs that are less harmful and that they don’t want to be using drugs publicly,” he said. “We all want a solution to drug use on the curb.”

The study is based on interviews with 858 crack cocaine and injection drug users, about two-thirds of whom live in the downtown core. Developed in consultation with people who use drugs, the study aims to better understand the city’s population of addicts and the impact of HIV on them.

Participants completed a one-time questionnaire that touched on a broad range of topics, including drug history, harm reduction, health status, access to treatment, sexual activities, police interactions and housing.

Such studies are notoriously difficult to conduct because drug users often don’t like to enrol. The Ottawa study represents one of the largest studies of its kind in Canada.

Most (74.4 per cent) of the participants were men and a significant proportion (18.2 per cent) identified as Aboriginal. The median age was 43.

Among the 272 participants who said they had injected drugs in the past year, 14.2 per cent were HIV positive and 18.5 per cent said they had engaged in sex work. A sizable majority (74.6 per cent) also reported having a mental health diagnosis.

About half of the men and 59 per cent of women said they would use a safe injection site daily.

Boyd said the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre intends to apply to the federal government for an exemption from drug laws that would allow it to open a safe injection site. But he conceded that application will likely be made more difficult if the Conservative government’s Bill C-2, the Respect for Communities Act, becomes law.

“I think we just have to make an application for an exemption no matter what happens,” he said. “There’s a clear willingness to use this type of service and I think there’s an obligation on us to make an attempt.”

Bill C-2, the government’s response to a 2011 Supreme Court decision that preserved Vancouver’s Insite drug clinic, is now before the Senate. Advocates say the new law undermines the court ruling by setting out”excessive and unreasonable” requirements for applicants that want to open a new safe injection site. Such applications must solicit written opinions about the proposed site from the mayor, the police chief, the chief medical officer and the relevant provincial minister.

In Ottawa, both the mayor and police chief have expressed opposition to a safe-injection site.

Ottawa resident Dave Pineau, 54, contracted HIV 30 years ago while sharing needles with a group of friends in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. At the time, he said, users could buy a new needle for $10 or a used one for $5. “I know that sounds horrible, but that’s just the way it was,” he said.

Pineau said a safe injection site would allow users to employ safe equipment and protect themselves against fatal overdoses. “If they OD by themselves, there’s no one there to help them through it: to perform CPR or whatever,” said Pineau, who suffered a near fatal overdose in 2003. “I did a really strong hit and I overdosed. I fought through it. But I was just lucky.”

He said a safe injection site is desperately needed: “Drug users are people, too, and this is what health care looks like for them.”

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