Demand for clean needles for drug use on track to double this year, organization says

A Winnipeg harm-reduction organization says it is on track to hand out nearly 1 million clean needles in Winnipeg this year — nearly double compared to recent years.

Demand for clean needles doubles compared to 2014-2015: Street Connections

Street Connections, an organization that hands out clean needles, said it's handed out nearly twice as many needles this year compared to 2014. (Courtesy Laura Thibodeau)

A Winnipeg harm-reduction organization says it is on track to hand out nearly 1 million clean needles in Winnipeg this year — nearly double compared to recent years.

Shelley Marshall, a clinical nurse who works with the West End-based organization Street Connections, says clients use the needles to inject drugs like crystal meth, fentanyl, morphine, heroin and oxycodone.

For many years, Street Connections handed out between 400,000 and 500,000 needles annually, but demand began to rise about 18 months ago, she said. This year, the group says it's on track to hand out a million needles, double its annual amount.

On Monday, residents told CBC they've noticed the repercussions of that increase — a spike in discarded needles in the West Broadway area.

Greg MacPherson, executive director of the West Broadway Community Organization, said that in the past few months alone residents have counted more than 100 used needles, compared to around 20 last summer.

Fentanyl, the drug responsible for many overdose deaths in Canada, is becoming more common on Winnipeg streets, said Marshall. 

Still, crystal meth is often the drug of choice for many users, because it's easy to dissolve into an injectable liquid. Conversely, pills require acid or heat to transform into a suitable form. 

Marshall said the organization collects about 3,000 used needles every day in Winnipeg.

Street Connections is the largest distributor of safe needles in Manitoba. Clean needles reduce harm to drug users because they can prevent the spread of infection and blood-borne illnesses like HIV.

There could be a few factors to explain why residents in the West End and West Broadway are noticing more needles left on the streets, she said. Safe Connections is currently investigating the social factors behind the increase in needle use.

"Discarded needles in the community are really a manifestation of outdoor injection drug use and that tends to arise from homelessness," said Marshall.

She said Winnipeg lacks a housing-first strategy. Many shelters require clients to be sober — which pushes users out on the streets to satisfy their addictions.

Another issue to consider is drug trends change and the increase in needles could be evidence users are shifting from smoking to injection drugs, said Marshall.

While Manitoba hands out close to 1 million needles a year, as a point of comparison, in Saskatchewan about 5 million safe needles are distributed out every year, according to Marshall.