Overdose prevention site approved in Halifax amid neighbourhood concerns
Site on Gottingen Street will allow substance users to safely consume drugs
The president of a group that's been working to open an overdose prevention site in Halifax said he's grateful the federal government has finally approved the project.
Two weeks ago, Health Canada granted the HaliFIX Overdose Prevention Society a one-year exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to allow the consumption of otherwise illegal drugs at the site, located in the basement of a methadone clinic on Gottingen Street.
The society's president, Matthew Bonn, said it felt "pretty surreal" to get the news.
"It's a feeling that money can't buy," he said. "Still a lot of work to do, but it's one huge step closer to reality."
The space will allow substance users to consume drugs in a safe place with access to peer support, health-care professionals and life-saving medications such as naloxone in case of an overdose.
"We're going to have two booths, a little chill space, a coffee maker.… It's really that most personal kind of intimate time of day for somebody who uses substances — and I speak from personal experience," Bonn said. "So, we want to make sure they feel comfortable."
He said he has no doubt the site will save lives.
"I'm a former IV substance user myself and I used on Gottingen Street and I used in every nook and cranny, abandoned buildings, churches, businesses and I contracted Hepatitis C, I overdosed," he said.
"Working on the front line now and kind of being on the other side, this is a constant. People don't have a place to use."
Bonn said between the potential for HIV transmission and the presence of fentanyl in the drug supply, the risks to users are high.
"The harms are so great right now for people who use substances that they need to be able to use in a controlled, supervised setting without the fear of being criminalized, without the fear of dying, without the fear of contracting HIV," he said. "I witness these things happen every day."
There were 53 confirmed and three probable opioid toxicity deaths in Nova Scotia in 2018. As of June 1, there were 11 confirmed and 9 probable opioid toxicity deaths so far this year.
Funding for the site has so far come entirely from donations.
Some people in the neighbourhood have raised concerns about the service.
'They're not utopias,' says business group head
The executive director of the North End Business Association, Patricia Cuttell Busby, said some members are worried about illegal drug dealing and where people will go after they consume drugs at the overdose prevention site.
"I think from experiences in other cities across Canada, we know these things are, they're not utopias, they're just not," she said. "So yeah, there is some anxiety in the community about the site."
Cuttell said the association is supportive of harm reduction strategies, but wants to see proper oversight, analysis and monitoring of the site, as well as supports to help deal with any issues that arise.
Concerns 'don't outweigh the risks'
She has contacted the mayor, the councillor for the area and the police to discuss a plan.
Bonn said he's open to speaking with anyone who has concerns about the project.
But for him, the safety of users is critical.
"Any concerns, you know, they don't outweigh the risks that people who use substances face on a daily basis," Bonn said.