Safe injection sites could open in Edmonton within a year

Medically safe injection sites are being planned to be up and running in three community centres and the Royal Alex hospital within a year, pending federal government approval.

'We're going to be as consistent as possible with the protocols and the services available at each site'

Cecilia Blasetti, executive director of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, shows what the proposed safe injection sites will look like.

Supervised injection sites for drug addicts could become a reality within a year at four locations in central Edmonton.

At a news conference Wednesday, officials with Access to Medically Supervised Injection Services Edmonton (AMSISE) announced some of the details of the plan, which will offer medically supervised injection services at existing community agencies in the downtown core.

The Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Boyle Street Community Services and the George Spady Centre have been chosen as centres offering supervised injection services. A fourth program would be set up at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for inpatients only.

The plan is to provide 24-7 care through a combination of the three community centres. Not all three will be open around the clock.

"If everything goes according to plan, and everything falls in to place and there's no hiccups, which we all know there's hiccups at different times, I would really hope that we're opening services no later than a year [from now]," said AMSISE chair Shelley Williams. She is executive director of HIV Edmonton and also chair of the council that runs Street Works, a needle exchange program.

All sites in central Edmonton

Cecilia Blasetti, executive director of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, said the plan is to be as consistent as possible with the protocols and the services available at each of the supervised injection sites.

"People will start off in an intake, or waiting area, and then they will move through that to the injection area and then there will be a place after — the common term is 'chill out' — but a monitoring site where we can insure that after the injection is done people are safe and healthy."

Each of these sites will also offer alternatives to addicts looking to get off drugs.

Detoxification will be available at the George Spady Centre. Users will also have the opportunity to access opiate replacement services, addiction treatment options and mental health services.

The locations of the sites were determined after a study was conducted in 2014 with the help of hundreds of drug users.

"We did a survey with 320 people who were actively using drugs and found that the critical need for supervised injection services is in the downtown area," said Dr. Elaine Hyshka, scientific director of the Inner City Health and Wellness program, which operates out of the Royal Alex.

However, the locations have not been finalized. More consultation is to take place with the communities involved, and the sites also require approval from the federal government.

An opportunity to 'get it right'

Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht said he is pleased to see that there will be community engagement sessions to gather feedback from people who will live and work close to the supervised injection sites.

He said he interpreted results from the survey of drug users to be "a bit of a cry for help" from people who want help to get off drugs. The injection sites will help if they are operated as "community wellness centres"  with a full strategy to assist people with the range of problems they face, he said.

"What I wouldn't support is a place where you just go, get your drugs, then go back out, try to find where you can get money to buy more illegal drugs and dangerous substances, and go to a safe injection site, shoot up again — just stay on this hamster wheel, year after year after year," Knecht said.

"I don't think that's what Edmontonians want. I don't think that's the humane, the right thing, to do. I think we have an opportunity here and we should take advantage of it."

The biggest issue from a public safety perspective is to help get the addicts off drugs "and to a better and a safer place," he said. "Get their street wounds dealt with, get their addictions dealt with. A lot of them are self-medicating because they have other problems in their life.

"We have an opportunity here, I think, to get it right in Edmonton, because we can see the successes and the failures in other jurisdictions. This is the time to do this. I don't think we want to rush into this. We take an incremental approach and do it right and I think we'll be in a better place."

'One more way of making a difference'

Shanell Twan is an outreach worker with Street Works.  Last year the program exchanged two million needles.  

Twan said having safe injection sites will keep needles and users off the streets.

Currently homeless people with addictions inject their drugs in back alleys, parks and public washrooms.

"People may not know the potency of the drugs they're using and the conditions that they're using under are just not hygienic " said Twan.

"We see these supervised consumption services as one more way of making a difference and respecting people's dignity so that they may be, you know, safe."