Permanent safe injection site for Victoria: report
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, March 31, 2008 10:26AM PDT
British Columbia's top health official says Victoria should become Canada's second city to permit safe injection drug sites, even though the future of the first site is still up in the air.
Vancouver has been operating its safe-injection drug site in the notorious Downtown Eastside neighbourhood for almost five years on a trial basis.
Now it's time to expand to Victoria, said Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer.
Kendall and Dr. Benedikt Fischer, of the University of Victoria's school of addictions research, are publishing a joint editorial in the B.C. Medical Journal on Tuesday calling for a second safe injection site in Victoria.
"The Health Act specifically states that if I am able, (I) must speak out on issues of policy or practice that I think affect the health of the population of British Columbia, and do it in any way that I think most appropriate," said Kendall.
"So, I think a journal editorial co-written with a drug policy researcher in a medical journal is an appropriate way of bringing the issue to attention."
Vancouver's safe-injection site, called Insite, allows addicts to inject their own heroin and cocaine under the supervision of a nurse.
Studies published in medical journals such as the Lancet have suggested Insite, the only facility of its kind in North America, has reduced overdoses and blood borne infections such as HIV because addicts are given clean needles.
Fischer and Kendall contend a supervised consumption drug site in Victoria will offer the city's 1,500 to 2,500 hard drug users a location other than alleyways and open parking lots to inject drugs.
And a second site in an urban environment smaller than Vancouver's will allow the federal government to further study the benefits of supervised drug sites, said Fischer.
The federal Conservative government has extended the Vancouver site's trial period, but has not committed to making permanent the exemption from drug laws that allows the site to operate.
The government also appears cool to expansion, Fischer said.
"The (federal) health minister has repeatedly called for additional evidence on whether these programs work or not," said Fischer.
"We think Victoria would be an ideal environment to produce such additional evidence and that the kind of safe consumption site program we would advocate for here in Victoria would be a model that would be quite distinct from what's going on in Vancouver."
Fischer said the Vancouver site is located in a permanent downtown location and the environment is highly clinical.
The Victoria model plans to include several smaller sites that are integrated with other services that could help drug users. It could include a mobile unit to reach out to injection drug users who are not being reached through conventional ways, he said.
It is estimated about 70 percent of Victoria's intravenous drug users are infected with the Hepatitis C virus and 15 percent are HIV positive.
Kendall said Victoria needs to file a joint city council, police and health authority application for a safe consumption pilot project to the federal government in order for a second project to be considered by Ottawa.
Victoria's city council and police department are in support of harm reduction strategies.
Victoria's health authority has not declared support for safe consumption drug sites, but it has been involved in several innovative drug projects in the Victoria area, including moves to distribute safe crack kits to users on Vancouver Island.
"I have to hope that the federal government would be guided by the evidence and the desires of the local health care providers, the local police forces and the local city council who are elected by the electors of Victoria," Kendall said.
Victoria is currently in the midst of a wrenching local debate over the location of a needle exchange. The location of the old needle exchange upset residents and business operators, and the proposed new location is drawing similar concerns.
Residents and businesses in the surrounding area said the neighbourhood became a haven for drug dealers and open drug use was rampant.
"Clearly, if those people weren't injecting in the streets, but were to inject inside in a sterile environment, they would not only be in contact with health services, but they'd also be out of view of the public," Kendall said.
Earlier this month, a United Nations monitoring body said it wanted the Canadian government to close Vancouver's safe injection site and end the distribution of safe crack kits in Toronto, Ottawa and on Vancouver Island.
The International Narcotics Control Board's annual report said the distribution of crack kits in some Canadian jurisdictions contravened part of the UN's Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs.
Proponents of Canada's harm reduction approach said the board's policies are irrelevant.