City of Ottawa should support supervised injection, says medical officer of health

Ottawa's medical officer of health wants local agencies to "heed the wake up call" and find new models that can make drug use safer for those with addictions.

Public consultation should begin this summer, medical officer of health recommends in report to city

An injection kit is shown at a supervised injection facility in Vancouver. Ottawa's medical officer of health is asking the city to officially support supervised injection sites. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Ottawa's medical officer of health wants local agencies to "heed the wake up call" and find new models that can make drug use safer for those with addictions.

In a report to be tabled at the Board of Health's June 20 meeting, Dr. Isra Levy suggests Ottawa Public Health adopt a guiding principle to support supervised injection sites, and evidence-backed proposals put forward by its community partners.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre is currently looking to set up the city's first such service at its Nelson St. location.

But Levy also wants to consider other proven approaches to limiting the harm from drug use, such as machines introduced in European countries that dispense sterile syringes for a token.

"They could go to those dispensing units just as one might go to a bank machine, at times when we're not staffing a facility," said Levy.

Addictions remain 'a significant problem'

Data that accompany Levy's report estimate that between 23,600 and 46,900 people in Ottawa use illicit drugs (not including cannabis) or non-medical opioids.

Some 1,200 to 5,600 people in Ottawa inject drugs, according to the report.

There will always be those who will keep using drugs because they are not ready or unable to change their lives, said Dr. Levy.

"What I'm really doing is calling on each of the agencies, including Ottawa Public Health to heed the wake-up call that the epidemiology tell us is going on that we still have a significant problem in our community," said Levy.

The number of people addicted to drugs is not shrinking and current services aren't getting the job done, said Levy.

"So, it behooves us all to reflect on what we can do within the constraints of the realities of our budgets and environments to do more, and not be limited by a lack of imagination."

After the board meeting, Ottawa Public Health will launch an online survey about supervised injection services, and harm reduction more generally, followed by consultation sessions later in the summer and fall.

Other cities considering sites

The Insite facility in Vancouver, which opened in 2003, has long been the only supervised injection site in the country, but Levy notes in his report that could soon change.

A 2011 Supreme Court decision that granted Insite an exemption so that its clients would not be charged for possessing illegal drugs has led agencies in other cities to seek the same exemption.

Toronto is considering three such sites and Montreal is also pursuing one, Levy wrote in his report.

Ottawa's Sandy Hill Community Health Centre also hopes to create this city's first supervised injection site, so the director of its Oasis program, Rob Boyd, welcomed the medical officer of health's report.

"We're kind of first out of the gate here at our centre in terms of really feeling this is a priority that we need to move on now," he said. "But we need more than one supervised injection service here in Ottawa. People will not travel large distances to use an injection service."

Mayor, police chief have opposed sites

Mayor Jim Watson, meanwhile, has long spoken out against allowing supervised injection sites in Ottawa, suggesting money would be better spent on treating those with addictions.

The police chief also has expressed concerns about public safety around such sites.

Levy said, on the whole, he can respect those who cannot accept that some people will inject into their bodies a substance that is unhealthy.

He doesn't agree with it either, but says the alternative is also an abomination.

"The alternative is to turn a blind eye and to have these people leave our care and go off alone into the night and struggle alone," said Levy.

"For me, that's a bigger issue and one I can't really live with."