Safe consumption sites wanted by Winnipeg drug users, health workers: survey

Drug users — and the people who support them — are in favour of a safe consumption site being built in Winnipeg, a new study suggests. 

More than 80% of drug users said they were likely to use a safe consumption site

A working group with representatives from more than a dozen Manitoba health organizations found there's an appetite for safe consumption sites in Winnipeg. (David Maialetti/Associated Press)

Drug users — and the people who support them — are in favour of a safe consumption site in Winnipeg, a new study suggests. 

More than 80 per cent of the drug users interviewed in the survey are likely or very likely to use a safe injection site, while the majority of service providers are on board with the proposal if drug users are. 

The study was the result of a working group from several health agencies, including the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and Sunshine House. They received a $15,000 grant to explore the viability of a safe-injection site in Winnipeg last year.

The Opposition NDP accused the provincial government Monday of trying to bury the report, which it did not publicize. The party then latched onto a moment during question period when Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister received a copy and dropped it on the floor behind him, which he sometimes does with papers he receives.

"Will the premier bother to read the report that his own government asked for?" Kinew asked.

Public spaces sought

Pallister was seen flipping through the report after question period.

The survey found that health advocates are generally supportive of the development of a safe- or supervised-consumption site, but they highlighted potential concerns such as the location chosen, the needs of law enforcement and the laws against assisted injection for people who cannot consume the drug themselves.

By and large, the advocates wanted more public spaces where people can use drugs, or simply be. A safe consumption site could be one answer, they said.

"Provider perspectives varied on the degree to which [safe consumption sites] in Winnipeg are a priority, but they supported the establishment of [safe consumption sites] within the continuum of harm reduction and substance use services, especially if people who use drugs would value and access the service," the report said.

"Further, providers were concerned about the lack of public and provincial government support for [safe consumption sites]."

Among their recommendations, they proposed involving people who use drugs in the development of a safe consumption site and establishing multiple inner-city locations.

Thirty-eight drug users were asked for their thoughts on a safe consumption site, with a majority of them in favour. 

The report noted the greatest source of harm in their lives was not the drugs but the world surrounding them, such as criminalization, imposed family separation and the stigma related to drug use.  

Users also want safe spaces to sleep, eat and socialize in, since more than 50 per cent of the people surveyed did not have a place to call home.

Benefits 'speak for themselves'

"I think the benefits of safer consumption spaces really do speak for themselves," said John Schellenberg, active planning and sustainability co-ordinator for Sunshine House, a Winnipeg drop-in centre focused on harm reduction.

"We're really excited about the possibility of Winnipeg finally being able to offer this innovative service to people."

While most users surveyed expected to use a safe consumption site, slightly more respondents (84 per cent) said they were likely to use the existing rapid access addiction medicine clinics that have been a cornerstone of the Progressive Conservatives' commitment to address drug addictions. 

At question period on Monday, Pallister repeated his previous argument that safe injection sites do not help people struggling with methamphetamine.

He said NDP Leader Wab Kinew is "consumed by the idea" that getting drugs to people will make a difference.

"I recently spoke to Premier Horgan in British Columbia and he says, 'I hope your opposition recognizes the unintended consequences of these actions,'" Pallister said. 

Schellenberg said governments of any stripe are reluctant to support controversial proposals like safe consumption sites, but he said the facility would save money by diverting drug users from emergency rooms and drunk tanks.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the province has shown it's not willing to support the building of a safe consumption site in Winnipeg. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

NDP Leader Wab Kinew says the government's reluctance to follow this report's advice is evident. It was initially published last week on the Sunshine House website. 

"They've chosen not to release it, not to put a press release around it, not to publicize the fact that this thing is now available," he said. "The fact that they don't like the answer is the reason that they're not willing to stand up and talk about it."

The WRHA said in a statement that it appreciates the work of the working group and would review the report's findings.

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