Edmonton addictions specialist wants stigma taken out of safe consumption sites
Since the first site at Boyle Street opened Friday, 97 people have used the service
As a first-of-its kind facility prepares to open in Edmonton, an outspoken addictions specialist is dismissing any opposition to supervised drug consumption sites.
On Monday, the Royal Alexandra Hospital will open Edmonton's second supervised consumption site as a safe place for patients to do hard drugs while they're in hospital. The site is a first in any acute-care hospital in North America.
In an interview Wednesday on CBC's Edmonton AM, public health physician Dr. Hakique Virani dismissed the argument that safe consumption sites enable or encourage people to keep doing drugs.
He said Canada should take a cue from places that embrace harm reduction and "reject the idea that punishing people who use substances is effective, because it's not.
"At the Royal Alex hospital, if you were to remove everybody who was there because they smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, eat too much, drive too fast, don't take their medications properly, don't wash their hands, don't get vaccinated, it would be a very, very quiet hospital."
Supervised drug consumption sites remain controversial, with politicians like United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney saying he doesn't believe in the approach and would not expand the program if elected Alberta's next premier.
Many people living and working in the Boyle-McCauley area are opposed to safe injection sites opening in the neighbourhood. The Chinatown and Area Business Association has called for a judicial review of the safe injection sites.
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"It's interesting that you hear that from politicians but you don't hear that from experts," Virani told Edmonton AM host Mark Connolly.
"That's not because of political differences, that's because of a difference in understanding," he said.
The Royal Alex facility will be the second supervised consumption site to open in Edmonton. A site at Boyle Street Community Services opened last week. Two more sites are to open in the city this spring.
Virani, other experts and front-line workers say the facilities are an effective way to prevent overdoses and deaths from opioids.
"The overdose crisis is top of mind for us," said Marliss Taylor, a program manager at Boyle Street Community Services' Streetworks.
Since the Boyle Street site opened on Friday, 97 people have used the service, with men outnumbering women three to one, Taylor said. Staff dealt with two overdoses in five days, saving emergency medical services from needing to respond.
Taylor said agencies in the city have been waiting for the sites for a long time.
"This is one way to be able to be with people at the time that they are most likely to overdose and be able to offer life-saving interventions if they require them," she said.
Supervised consumption sites take addicts away from the dark alleys, where they face an "increased risk of overdose, increased risk of different infections," Taylor added.
The program also takes needles off the street, as clients use and dispose of them in the supervised site.
"It makes far more sense to me to bring them indoors, into a place where they are safer."
"This is one way to be able to be with people at the time that they are most likely to overdose and be able to offer life-saving interventions if they require them."
They then can discuss counselling services, detox options and housing.
Taylor said Boyle Street will be part of an evaluation program, which all sites in the province will participate in.
Two more safe injection sites are set to open northeast of downtown this spring — a space in the George Spady Centre which will open evenings and weekends, and in the Boyle McCauley Health Centre.