U of W students call for downtown safe injection site

A group of University of Winnipeg students is calling for the creation of a supervised drug consumption site in downtown Winnipeg.

'It is a big issue': Group joins community activists asking government to step up

A group of University of Winnipeg students hold an informational picket outside the school Thursday calling for the creation of a supervised drug consumption site in downtown Winnipeg. (Bert Savard/CBC )

A group of University of Winnipeg students has joined  community activists in calling for the creation of a supervised drug consumption site in downtown Winnipeg.

The students held an informational picket outside the U of W Thursday, using the stark image of wooden crosses stuck in the snow to represent overdose deaths.

"There are a lot of people who don't realize that drug consumption is such an issue," said Laura Taylor, one of several students who organized the demonstration. "We want to make people aware that it is a big issue and lives are lost."

Laura Taylor, one of several students who organized Thursday's informational picket, says a safe injection site in downtown Winnipeg would provide a central location for users. (Bert Savard/CBC)

The students are advocating for a safe hygienic facility where users can self-administer their drug of choice in an environment supervised by health-care professionals.

It's an idea Taylor says has proven effective in other Canadian cities, including Vancouver where a five-year evaluation showed the city's largest facility saved the province at least $14 million over 10 years.

"We have some catching up to do," Taylor said.

Widespread problem

Ben Fry, CEO of Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, acknowledged in January the idea has worked in cities where the facilities target populations concentrated in a small area such as Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

However, he says, Winnipeg's problem is more widespread than a single neighbourhood.

"The one thing that we believe from literature is that safe consumption sites do tend to be a model that's effective when there's a very narrow geographical area," he said. "What we see in Manitoba, that's not necessarily the case."

While Winnipeg's problem is larger than one neighbourhood, Taylor says, building a safe injection site near the city's downtown would be a good start.

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Manitoba, like all Canadian provinces, is dealing with the availability of cheap crystal meth and opioids such as fentanyl.

Overdose deaths from fentanyl have risen over the last number of years as the provincial health-care system strains to help addicts who have little access to resources.

Earlier this year Premier Brian Pallister told CBC News that Manitoba has taken some steps and is currently developing a strategy to help deal with the province's addiction crisis

However, he added, root causes need to be targeted as well.

"Too often I think I've seen in the past … [governments] often throw significant resources at the problem, but they too often do that without addressing cause and effect," he said.

The City of Winnipeg received 430 reports of discarded needles on public property between January and early December 2017. (Bert Savard/CBC)

"So we want to balance our investments to make sure we're addressing both the causes as well as the reality of the challenges that we face today as a consequence of this drug problem."

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said last December the province has no plans to open a safe injection site, citing a lack of evidence it would work here.

"Certainly at this point the evidence doesn't lead us to believe a safe injection site is the best place for resources to go into to try to reduce drug addiction in Manitoba and Winnipeg."

Safety first, then rehab

The student group says it is working with the opposition NDP and organizations including Resource Assistance for Youth, Inc. and Sunshine House to advance their cause, says co-organizer Libbi Johnson.

Johnson understands some people will argue that educating people about the dangers of drug use would be a better use of resources than providing a safe space, but she thinks providing resources along with education is a better approach.

University of Winnipeg student Libbi Johnson says safe consumption sites should first provide a safe space for users to self-administer drugs first, followed by rehabilitation. (Bert Savard/CBC)

"A lot of the safe consumption sites in other parts of Canada, along with providing a safe facility they also provide rehab help, too," she said. "The goal is to first make the drug use safe and then eventually get them toward rehab."

The student group used the demonstration to collect signatures on a petition calling for a safe injection site in Winnipeg.

"We want to make people aware that it is a big issue and lives are being lost," Taylor said.