Board of health says yes to supervised injection site for Hamilton

The board of health voted today to endorse a report that recommends Hamilton should have at least one supervised injection site.

'It's going to save lives.' Grieving mother pleads with council to endorse sites after daughter’s death

Tammy Burgess (right) is comforted in the public gallery at city hall, after giving a presentation about supervised injection sites in the wake of her daughter's death. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Tammy Burgess's daughter Brookelynne died alone, helpless, with a needle stuck in her arm.

She wants to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else.

Burgess appeared before city councillors Monday to plead for them to endorse a supervised injection site in Hamilton — a place drug users could more safely inject substances like opioids and crystal meth.

She got her wish. The board of health voted to endorse a report that recommends the city should have at least one supervised injection site.

"I stand here today not to ask, but to demand as a grieving mother, that you get these safe injection sites into Hamilton before more people lose their loved ones and addicts have a safe place to use," Burgess said.

"I know my daughter would have been alive today if there was a safe injection site she could have gone to. I know that with all my heart."

It really is a no brainer. Not only are we saving lives, we're saving money.- Coun. Sam Merulla

Burgess's daughter died nine months ago of an overdose at age 24.

She described Brookelynne's struggle for councillors, even recounting the heartbreaking instances in which she found her daughter in medical distress during previous overdoses.

Burgess once found her daughter turning blue, with her eyes rolling back in her head. She ended up doing chest compressions on her own flesh and blood. Her daughter endured multiple overdoses, and developed a skin condition from reusing her own needles.

Brookelynne would fight with her, telling her mother she hated her guts.

"That was not my Brookelynne talking. It was the fentanyl, which was taking her life," she said.

"I know my Brookelynne would have went to an SIS the day she lost her life, because she was alone, and knew she would have been saved. She knew it would destroy her family if she died."

43 opioid overdose deaths in 2016 alone

A new city study says Hamilton would benefit from "one or more" supervised injection sites, where people could inject drugs without fear of legal consequences, and under the care of medical professionals.

Now that the board of health has voted to endorse that idea, it will go before city council as a whole. Should council okay it as well, that endorsement can be used by a healthcare provider in its application to Health Canada, seeking approval for a site.

Burgess displayed this photo of her daughter behind her as she spoke. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Councillors heard from public health staffers today that in general, the cash for setting up supervised injection sites across Canada has been coming from provincial governments, though municipalities may end up incurring some operating costs down the line.

The data also outlines the stark realities that people with addictions are living with in Hamilton today.

In 2016, 43 people died in Hamilton due to accidental opioid poisoning, which is above the provincial average. That number has more than quadrupled since 2002.

The report says a safer site should be in the lower city, located in the area flanked by Queen Street, Barton Street, Ferguson Avenue and Main Street. The study also says additional sites should eventually be considered, with an eye to the east end and the Mountain.

Councillors speak out in favour

Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr was adamant that his ward would benefit from a supervised injection site, even if some residents will undoubtedly cry "not in my backyard."

"This is the ward where discarded needles can be found right now, steps from city hall … this is an issue for a lot of residents in Ward 2," he said.

"It's is already in our backyard. Worse, we're seeing those with this disease dying."

Other councillors spoke out in favour as well.

"In a perfect world, we'd love to see no one use illicit intravenous drugs. The reality is, they do," Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla said, adding that there are social and long term fiscal benefits to these sites, which research has shown would ease the strain on paramedic and hospital services.

"It really is a no-brainer. Not only are we saving lives, we're saving money," Merulla said.

Ward 8 Coun. Terry Whitehead was on board as well. "If it ends up salvaging one life … then I think it's worth the investment," he said.

Councillors stood and applauded as they voted in favour to endorse the injection sites, and were joined by many spectators who were sitting in the public gallery.

One of those was Burgess, clapping her hands while tears flowed freely down her face.

"It is going to save lives," she insisted.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.