Drug users, neighbours weigh in on safe injection site proposal for Ottawa

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has taken its proposal for a supervised injection site to the public in consultations that began Monday night.

Sandy Hill Community Health Centre holding consultations on proposed supervised drug injection site

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre is holding public consultations about a possible supervised injection site for Ottawa. Drug injection kits like this one would be handed out to drug users at a safe injection site. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Neighbours, real estate agents and drug users all sat together Monday night to hear the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre's proposal for a safe drug injection site in Ottawa.

Rob Boyd, director of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, is hoping the public will come to the consultations to hear how a safe drug injection site would operate. (CBC)

It was the first of four meetings that the centre's director, Rob Boyd, said are aimed at educating people about misconceptions as well as hearing out people's concerns.

Boyd wants to incorporate the feedback and hopefully some community buy-in as part of a detailed plan to present to the centre's board of directors in June, proposing to create a supervised drug injection site at its Nelson Street location.

About 30 people took part in sessions showing how users would access the centre's lower floor, where already about 700 drug users take part in the centre's needle exchange.

Public invited to see how it works

Those using the new safe injection site would receive an drug injection kit, which includes items such as a clean needle and alcohol swabs.

The person would then move into an adjacent room to inject her/himself under the supervision of a nurse.

Darren Noftall is already using the needle exchange program, as well as other services from the centre. He said he injects himself on average three times a day.

"Addicts are people too, and we deserve a safe space," said Noftall, who explained that because he injects at home he is at high risk of being alone if he suffers an overdose.

Addicts are people too, and we deserve a safe space.- Darren Noftall

To those concerned that an injection site may attract more addicts to the area, he said there are "already a lot of addicts in the area, so I don't think you could add any more, so lets take them off the street and put them inside where they're safe, and where the community can also stay safe."

Consultation changed thinking, neighbour says

A neighbour to the centre, Bernard Lamontagne, said the hour-long session changed his thinking on the issue.

"I think I was practically opposed to it when I came in through those doors," he said. "To be honest, I think I'd prefer it go in someone else's backyard, but given that I've chosen to live here I'd say I'm now mildly in favour of it."

Darren Noftall has already used the services of a supervised injection site in Vancouver, and that while addicts will need time to get used to the idea, it'll be safer for them. (CBC)
That kind of change in thinking is what Boyd is hoping for.

He said people find the growing evidence from Canada's first injection sites in Vancouver convincing.

"The evidence is pretty strong and clear that supervised injection services decrease the incidence of public injecting, decrease the risk of overdose death, and decrease the risk of behaviour associated with acquiring HIV and hepatitis C, all without having a negative impact on the local community."

The evidence is pretty strong and clear...- Rob Boyd, director of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre

One of the driving motivations behind a rash of proposals for injection sites across Canada, including cities such as Toronto and Montreal, is concern over the increase in overdoses coinciding with the rise in the use of the narcotic fentanyl.

Noftall said fentanyl is a big concern among users because it is so strong and is frequently cut into other drugs.

He said he has seen friends as recently as last weekend hospitalised because fentanyl had been cut into the speed (amphetamines) they injected.

"If someone overdoses using fentanyl [at the new supervised site], at least there will be people here to respond," he said.

Addicts need time to adjust

But Noftall said there will be a period of adjustment for users. The first time he went in to use the drug injection site in Vancouver, he was so nervous he ran out, he said.

"It's going to take addicts time to get comfortable," he said. "It took me three attempts to get myself familiar with the staff and trust the nurses."

There will be more public consultation meetings each Monday for the following three weeks.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has already stated he'd prefer an investment in drug treatment programs. Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau is also opposed to the centre's proposal.

But Boyd said he can seek out federal government approval without their support, though he hopes both have a change of heart. The federal government would need to grant the centre an exemption from drug control laws in order to allow injection drug use at its facility.

Boyd said if all goes to plan, he hopes to have Ottawa's only supervised drug injection program up and running by next spring.