British Columbia

5 new supervised injections sites coming to fight Vancouver's fentanyl overdose crisis

Five new supervised injection sites could be opening somewhere in the Vancouver area, but health officials will not release the locations until they are approved by Health Canada.

Health officials say location of new supervised injection sites won't be released before they are approved

Since 2003 the Insite clinic in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has provided a place for users to inject illegal drugs under medical supervision. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Five new supervised injection sites could be opening somewhere in the Vancouver area, but health officials will not release the locations until they are approved by Health Canada.

Health Minister Terry Lake says the province wants to open the new sites — similar to the Insite facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside —  to stop the soaring number of overdose deaths.

But according to Vancouver Coastal Health spokeswoman Anna-Marie D'Angelo none of the new sites would be stand-alone sites like Insite.

Instead, all would be located inside existing facilities that already provide services for drug users.

There are already two supervised injection sites operated by Vancouver Coastal Health. One is Insite. The other is a smaller location at the Dr. Peters Centre at St. Paul's Hospital. That one is only open to clients of the centre, which serves people with HIV/AIDS.

Both have Health Canada permits, which are required in order to legally allow doctors and nurses to monitor users at a supervised drug site, she said.

Overdose rates spiking

Along with the five new sites planned by Vancouver Coastal Health, health authorities across the province are looking at similar options, according to the health minister. 

Lake says he wants the federal government to reconsider laws that restrict these types of facilities so that health authorities can create more of these services. Under existing laws all the proposed sites still require Health Canada approval.

"We have seen the evidence. We know that we can reduce overdose deaths. We can reduce other related harms, reduce hospitalizations and connect people to services once they're ready to accept that help," said Lake.

Yesterday a report released by British Columbia's chief coroner said illicit drug overdoses have become the leading cause of unnatural death in the province, outpacing fatalities from vehicle crashes.

The report said there were 308 illicit drug overdose deaths from January through May of this year, compared with 176 deaths in the same period last year. 

Fentanyl, pictured here, has a reputation as one of the deadliest street drugs available. (Calgary Police Service)

Fentanyl was involved in 56 per cent of deaths in the first four months of this year compared with just five per cent of drug-related deaths in 2012.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said that overdose deaths could amount to 750 people by the end of 2016 if the trend continues. 

In comparison, there were 300 fatalities from motor vehicle incidents in the province in 2015.

The province's public health officer declared a state of emergency in April because of the rising number of drug-related deaths.

Overdose kits distributed

Meanwhile, to prevent more deaths from overdoses, the BC Centre for Disease Control has distributed 8,000 kits containing the opioid antidote naloxone.

The kits are now available at over 100 establishments across the province and 1,200 kits have already been used to reverse overdoses, said Dr. Mark Tyndall, the centre's executive director.

Naloxone kits are effective at stopping overdose deaths, say health officials. (Government of Alberta)

Health Canada removed the prescription status on naloxone in March to improve accessibility.

"The option to get it out of pharmacies has also been very helpful and we need to make sure people are aware they can pick it up," said Tyndall.

The kits have a larger dose of the antidote than what was previously prescribed for opioids in order to be effective on the more dangerous substance fentanyl, he said.

But more services are needed, including rapid access to detox programs, to help people with addictions, he added.

The health minister acknowledged there is a gap and said the government is investing in new services and centres for mental health and substance abuse.

However, Lake said "you can't flip a switch" and it will take time for new services to have an effect.

With files from The Canadian Press