Vancouver is the first North American city to provide heroin users with a safe medical environment to take their drugs.

The supervised, safe-injection site, which will cost $2 million a year to operate, opened on Monday. It is expected to stop the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C from intravenous drug use and reduce the number of heroin deaths.

The safe-injection site, located in the Downtown Eastside, will operate 18 hours a day under the supervision of nurses. The neighbourhood is home to an estimated 4,000 injection drug users and a high number of people with HIV and Hepatitis C.

Up to 800 drug users are expected to visit the Vancouver site each day.

There are currently 47 safe-injection sites operating in Europe, many of them in existence for more than a decade.

Safe injection sites, which operate under the supervision of medical staff, typically offer drug addicts sterile needles, spoons, water and access to detox and treatment programs and free counselling.

Safe-injection sites have been criticized by high-profile individuals such as U.S. drug czar John Walters as being havens that will encourage heroin use. The Vancouver site is seen as a welcome neighbourhood service by the city's former mayor, Philip Owen and current mayor, Larry Campbell.

In 2000, Owen pushed for a safe-injection site that would provide out-reach services to the city's heroin users.

"It's pretty obvious you can't incarcerate your way out of the drug problem. You can't liberalize your way out of it and just give anybody the drugs they want, " he says. "You can't ignore it. So you manage it," said Owen.

Another dissenting voice comes from Thomas Kerr, a Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network researcher who said that rigid rules and the presence of eight police officers at the site will likely scare away drug users from entering the site.

A recent study showed that 92 per cent of Vancouver's drug users initially said they would use the safe-injection site, but when they learned about the bureaucratic complexities they would face at the safe-injection sites, the number dropped to 31 per cent.