Manitoba

WRHA studying need for safe injection site in Winnipeg, despite PCs rejecting idea of consumption spaces

While the Manitoba government has thus far dismissed calls for a safe injection site, health officials behind the scenes are evaluating the need for one anyway.

'I think there is a consensus about the need to have something done' says working group member

The majority of Winnipeggers in a new poll say they're in favour safe injection sites, despite the provincial government sayingit doesn't support the idea. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

While the Manitoba government has thus far dismissed calls for a safe injection site, health officials behind the scenes are evaluating the need for one anyway, CBC News has learned through a freedom of information request. 

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority confirmed they received a $15,000 grant earlier this year from the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse (CRISM) to explore the viability of a safe-injection site in Winnipeg.

Sunshine House, a Winnipeg-based drop-in centre focused on harm reduction, is in charge of administering the funding, according to the WRHA.

Margaret Ormond, executive director of the organization, suggests the Progressive Conservative government — which has previously stated there is no data to back up the need for an injection site — is making an argument against a certain harm-reduction model without evidence.

"They've taken a position that may not be borne out by facts," said Ormond.

"One of the key things that is clear is … there has not been evidence for a statement to be made that we don't need it."

The study will explore the need for any kind of drug consumption space in Winnipeg, including sites where people who use drugs can consume them under supervision.

One of the key things that is clear is that there isn't evidence. There has not been evidence for a statement to be made that we don't need it.- Sunshine House executive director Margaret  Ormond

Ormond said representatives from several groups, including themselves, Manitoba Health and the Addictions Foundations of Manitoba, met earlier this year to determine what can be done about the increasing prevalence of opioid addiction in the community. 

Unanswered questions

"The question arose pretty quick about what exactly was needed and what exactly did a safe space look like and nobody could answer it," she said. "People couldn't answer that with any kind of precision or clarity."

Ormond says the WRHA applied for funding in hopes of establishing a strategy.

She expects the study to take several months. The working group will host consultation sessions this August and September. Discussions will be informed by people who may benefit from such a facility, as well as service providers.

They aren't convinced, at least yet, that a safe injection site is the answer, she said.

"I think there is a consensus about the need to have something done. There's not certainty about what that would be, what that would look like."

The provincial government has publicly opposed a safe consumption site because of a lack of evidence.

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen referenced a Manitoba Health report that found 74 per cent of people who die from overdoses took the drugs at home, and he's questioned whether people would travel to a safe injection site in a central location.

The government also faced accusations of political interference this May when it released the Virgo report proposing a safe injection site in Winnipeg only to retract the recommendation hours later, saying it was a draft report never meant to be released.

In a statement to CBC News regarding the new study, a government spokesperson said the health minister wants to help the greatest amount of people with the resources at his disposal.

"Experts such as Dr. Rush, author of the Virgo report, have told [the minister] there isn't enough evidence to suggest drug consumption sites meet that threshold at this time," the spokesperson said. 

"Nevertheless, the government has demonstrated through the commissioning of the Virgo report that it supports research into issues of addiction and mental health."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Kristin Annable

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