Hundreds of people a day are expected to attend Vancouver's newest supervised injection site, opening in the Downtown Eastside on Friday.
The new service at the Powell Street Getaway, a drop-in centre for people with mental health and addiction issues, received an exemption from Health Canada in May to allow consumption of illegal drugs and was officially approved following an inspection this week.
"We're excited about having the ability to build a rapport and understanding and help reduce that stigma that people face on a daily basis, and make sure that folks aren't using alone," said Shayne Williams, executive director of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, which manages the facility.
"It's been a year of loss … amongst our community, where too many souls have gone, too many of our friends have gone, and we're all feeling the impact of the opioid epidemic in our province."
As estimated 216 people have died of overdoses so far this year in Vancouver.
The new site will be open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and includes five booths for users to inject their drugs.
A destination for addiction resources
The drop-in at 528 Powell St. has been operating as an overdose prevention site since December, seeing up to 300 people a day, according to Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH).
The location was chosen as a supervised injection site, because it's already a beacon for people seeking resources to deal with mental illness and addiction, Daly said.
"We believe by embedding these services in existing places like a mental health and addiction drop-in cenre, is actually how we should be expanding these services, rather than as standalone supervised consumption sites," she said.
Contrast that with Insite, Vancouver's first legalized supervised injection site, where health officials have been gradually adding in new services after it was launched as a standalone site in 2003.
VCH will also be applying to the federal government for the right to allow drug users to take drugs orally and nasally at the Powell Street injection site.
Another application is pending to allow a supervised injection site at the Heatley Integrated Health Centre, located at 330 Heatley St.
Feds 'need to do more in the future'
Daly said that while it's a relief to have a federal government that supports harm reduction efforts after the obstruction from the previous Conservative government, it still takes months to get new sites approved. The applications for both the Powell and Heatley sites were submitted to Health Canada back in October.
"I think they do need to do more in the future. In a crisis like this, we don't want to be waiting many months for necessary services," Daly said.
She added that there have been signs that the overdose crisis is levelling off in Vancouver, but it's too soon to say if that will continue or lead to a decrease in deaths.
B.C.'s medical health officers argue that all illicit drugs should be legalized in order to properly address contamination with harmful substances like fentanyl and carfentil.
"The number one reason for this crisis is contamination of an illegal drug supply with toxic substances. If we were to make them all legal and regulate them, then we could control the quality of those substances," Daly said.