Montreal's supervised injection sites open, a first in Eastern Canada

After months of preparation and years of lobbying in hopes of preventing drug overdoses, Montreal's safe-injection sites are opening their doors to the public for the first time today.

3 centres expect to oversee up to 300 injections daily

Montreal's fourth supervised site is expected to open in the fall. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Three safe-injection sites open in Montreal today after months of preparation and years of lobbying by advocates who say they will save lives. 

A first in Eastern Canada, two centres and a mobile unit have been approved by Health Canada and staff will begin providing services to Montrealers as of this morning.

"Here in Montreal, the impact will be access to services to people who use drugs," said Louis Letellier de St-Just, president of Cactus Montreal, one of the organizations in charge of a centre. 

"And of course, we will now be able to say, 'we are going to save lives.'"

Cactus Montreal, up until now a needle-exchange site only, is located on Sanguinet Street in downtown Montreal. The other supervised site, which will be run by the community organization Dopamine, will be in the city's east end in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.

The mobile unit, known as Anonyme, will make its way through the city's downtown core every day.

A fourth supervised site is expected to open by the fall.

Open every day

Each centre has staff on hand to supervise injections and intervene in case of overdoses. Sixteen nurses will be working at the sites, with the help of community workers.

Dopamine has three rooms set up for drug users, and a nurse and counsellor are on site for support, said director Martin Pagé.

The centres are open 22 hours a day, 365 days a year. The mobile site will also offer services during overnight hours.

People who wish to use the sites must register at the time of their first visit.

Pagé said he expects staff at Dopamine will supervise between 15 and 40 injections a day. The city's public health officials expect all three centres to oversee a total of up to 300 injections every day. 

The Quebec government has also provided $12 million in funding over three years to ensure that the safe-injection sites are fully functional.

The supervised injection sites in Montreal will be the first of their kind in the province and in Eastern Canada. (Charles Contant/CBC)

For Letellier de St-Just, the decision to open safe-injection sites means health-care workers will be able to provide services to more people and help save lives on a daily basis.

"That's the hope, that we'll be able to reach other drug users who would never come to our facilities," said Letellier de St-Just.

He added that the creation of these confidential and safe spaces will have an immediate impact on Montrealers who use drugs.

There are an estimated 4,000 injectable drug users in the city. Every year, about 70 of them die from an overdose.

A way to fight fentanyl overdoses

The city, province, federal government and organizations behind the safe-injection sites have spent a long time preparing — along with nurses who travelled to the west coast to learn about the opioid crisis in Vancouver.

The centres are also opening a few days after the Montreal police carried out a major drug bust, where small amounts of fentanyl were seized.

The mobile unit will be making the rounds through Montreal's downtown core. (Navneet Pall/CBC)

Organizers behind the centres hope that their services will also be used as a preventive measure to combat the fatal effects of fentanyl.

Lettelier de St-Just said that at least now health care and community workers will have a place to respond to overdoses.

"I would say fentanyl is already here, I would not say it's up to the point of a crisis," Letellier de St-Just said. "We have to be prepared for that."

While the primary goal of these sites isn't to help people stop using, Pagé said by coming to the supervised injection sites, drug users make connections with health professionals who can help them should they choose to quit.

And for those worried about these sites opening in their neighbourhoods, Pagé said there are benefits for them as well — fewer needles left behind on streets, parks and in other public places, and fewer people using on the streets.

With files from CBC's Matt D'Amours, Daybreak and Radio-Canada