Ottawa

Concerns raised on safety, liability of Ottawa pop-up drug use site

The executive director of what's soon to be Ottawa's first legal supervised injection site is expressing concerns about the safety of volunteers and drug users who'll be part of an unsanctioned site launching in the city today.

'Overdose prevention site' to open today in Ottawa at undisclosed location

David Gibson, the executive director of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre in Ottawa, has some concerns about a pop-up safe injection site that's supposed to open Friday. (CBC)

The executive director of what's soon to be Ottawa's first legal supervised injection site is expressing concerns about the safety of volunteers and drug users who'll be part of an unsanctioned site launching in the city today.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa is planning to unveil its pop-up "overdose prevention site" inside a tent today at a still-undisclosed location.

In its announcement Thursday morning, the group — which includes people with healthcare experience and experts in working with people who use drugs — said the need is urgent and that they can't wait for official government help.

"People are being forced to use in spaces that are unsafe, where they use alone and they don't have access to [the opioid overdose-reversing drug] naloxone," said Marilou Gagnon, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa's school of nursing.

The tent will have a table, chairs and naloxone, she said, and will be staffed by three people who could act in case of an emergency and help support people who come there to use.

Questions about lack of oversight

However, David Gibson, the executive director of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, said the lack of regulation around the site poses questions about what might happen if there were an emergency.

"I certainly respect their tenacity, in terms of wanting to make a difference and save lives," Gibson told CBC News Thursday.

University of Ottawa associate professor Marilou Gagnon shares details of a supervised drug use site that Overdose Prevention Ottawa is planning to open in the city. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

"My concern, however, is in terms of the safety for not only the workers and peers that are going to be in this pop-up, but also for the clients who come in to use and actually inject opiate drugs."

The Nelson Street community centre will soon be opening its own facility that would provide supervised injections to between 80 and 150 people a day, many of whom already use the centre for other reasons.

After five years of seeking approval, the centre was granted clearance from Health Canada last month to establish the site. It could open as soon as October.

Gibson said the pop-up site may not "follow the same stringent controls and regulations" that Health Canada has placed on the Sandy Hill centre, and might not provide support for issues tied to addiction, including mental health problems. 

"My worry also is this may stigmatize and marginalize the very people we're trying to bring in to a mainstream organization," he added.

"They're doing what they think is right. They're making a political statement to what has been a very political process," Gibson said. "And that question still remains — is that the right way of doing things if it takes so long to even open up such a small service, really, in terms of the continuum that we'll provide here at our health centre."

'Consistent' with OPH goals

Overdose Prevention Ottawa's site is based on other unsanctioned sites previously launched in Toronto and Vancouver.

In an update provided to the city's board of health and the mayor and councillors Thursday, medical officer of health Isra Levy said the pop-up site concept "appears to be consistent" with Ottawa Public Health's own peer overdose prevention program.

That program trains opioid users how to intervene if someone they're with is overdosing and has been in place since 2012.

Levy said he had asked OPH members to get in touch with Overdose Prevention Ottawa "expeditously" and offer to assist with the site.

If this springs up, who will be liable if someone dies?- Coun. Rick Chiarelli

"Though not involved in this initiative to date, OPH stands ready to work with partners who have a common goal of saving lives from potential overdoses," Levy said in his update.

Mayor Jim Watson was unavailable for an interview, but told CBC News in a statement he hopes the site's organizers will follow the rules.

"There is a process for the federal approval of supervised consumption sites that I would encourage all community agencies to follow," Watson said.

One city councillor, however, called for Overdose Prevention Ottawa's site to be shut down.

"We have a law, and you should follow it," said River ward Coun. Rick Chiarelli. "We need to make sure all the precautions are in place. If this springs up, who will be liable if someone dies?"

With files from Judy Trinh and Aislinn May

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