Front-line workers in Winnipeg want to look at safe drug injection sites

With at least 24 opioid-related deaths in Manitoba to date and intravenous drug use spiking, front-line workers in Winnipeg are looking to discuss whether the city would benefit from supervised injection sites.

Street Connections on track to hand out 1M needles this year as intravenous drug use spikes

An injection kit is shown at a supervised injection facility in Vancouver. People who work with drug users in Winnipeg want to explore the idea of such sites here. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

With at least 24 opioid-related deaths in Manitoba so far this year and intravenous drug use spiking, front-line workers in Winnipeg want to look at whether the city would benefit from supervised injection sites.

"We have a responsibility to do a meaningful consultation of people who use drugs, a meaningful consultation of communities and figure out what kind of intervention we might need," said Shelley Marshall, a clinical nurse specialist with Street Connections. 

The harm-reduction team distributes clean needles and syringes to drug users, and is on track to hand out 1 million needles this year in the province.

"The demand has doubled," Marshall said, adding she isn't surprised.

"We would run out of needles one week, and we would order 40,000 needles a week."

Because those who receive needles from Street Connections remain anonymous, Marshall said it's difficult to know how many more people are using their services.

But Winnipeg's "rapidly changing" drug market may be behind the increase, she said.

Shelley Marshall says Street Connections is on track to distribute 1 million needles to drug users in 2016. (CBC News)
On top of strong opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil entering the market, injection is a growing method of drug use. Crystal meth use is also on the rise, Marshall said.

"It's very prevalent among youth, and it's a very cheap drug and it's very amenable to intravenous use," she said.

Province shoots down idea 

On Monday, the federal government announced a series of legislative changes to make it easier for cities to open supervised injection sites.

The supervised facilities provide drug users a safe space to inject their drugs while trained medical staff are on hand to respond in the event of an overdose.

Vancouver has two such injection sites, and front-line workers in Winnipeg say it's time to discuss the approach here.

In an email to CBC News, the Manitoba government confirmed safe injection sites are not on the table right now.

"[Manitoba Health] has no evidence at this time that supervised injection sites would be a relevant harm reduction solution for the province and consequently, there are no plans in place to create such sites," a spokesperson said, adding it is "too early to say if consultations will be held." 

Manitoba groups to begin talks 

Despite the province's stance, the John Howard Society of Manitoba is gathering local agencies in the new year to discuss whether safe sites make sense for Winnipeg.

"I do expect that the number of overdose deaths is going to increase very quickly," executive director John Hutton said. "We want to be proactive and try to get ahead of this and start looking at strategies."

Hutton said Manitoba should not ignore the success of Vancouver's supervised injection sites, which saw roughly 4,900 overdose interventions this past year without a single death.

"One of the real advantages of the site is that you have trained professionals right there, but also you're bringing the drug use out from the shadows," Hutton said, adding it can be a powerful tool for dealing with drug use and addiction. 

"You're having health intervention accessible, health services, counseling — people are coming in because they're not hiding," he said.

Both Hutton and Marshall agree there needs to be discussion and evidence gathering, since Vancouver's drug landscape is very different than Winnipeg's.

"A safe injection site tends to serve people who live fairly proximal — you'll go to it if it's nearby," Marshall said.

"In Winnipeg we do have fairly spread out injection drug use ... nobody knows [what will work] until we've done a good consultation and that work needs to happen."