Supervised injection site support from Ottawa Public Health 'huge', say advocates

People and groups working to bring a supervised drug injection site to Ottawa say they're extremely excited to hear the city's top doctor talk about their benefits.

Dr. Isra Levy said Thursday the sites have a place in Ottawa healthcare strategy

Jordon MacLean is a coordinator for DUAL Ottawa's drop-in centre. He says drug users he works with are "awful excited" at the idea they could have a supervised injection site where they can go get help. (CBC)

Jordon MacLean worked an 18-hour day on Thursday but still had trouble getting to sleep when he finished.

The social worker and coordinator at Ottawa's Drug Users Advocacy League (DUAL) said Friday he was extremely excited to hear the city's chief medical officer of health talk about the benefits of a supervised drug injection site.

"Wow what a difference from a month ago when it was no comment and now everyone's saying this is proven, with evidence, that this is about saving lives," said MacLean, a recovering drug user himself, on Friday.

"It makes me want to cry, it's just so amazing that we're finally caring about people that are vulnerable." 

On Thursday, Dr. Isra Levy, Ottawa's medical officer of health, put out a statement talking about the benefits of a supervised injection site as part of a broader harm reduction strategy for drug users.

In an interview with CBC News later in the day, Levy said the sites where people with addictions can inject drugs under trained staff supervision are "an unquestioned part of the spectrum of health services" and the city could actually use more than one of them.
Khaled Salaam of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa says Levy and other public officials play a big part in swaying public opinion. (CBC)

Before that, Ottawa Public Health went on the record in March saying it had no plans to open a site in Ottawa and cautioned that any group wanting to open one should hold "robust public consultations."

"I think it's definitely a step forward," said Khaled Salam, executive director of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa.

"Initially Ottawa Public Health had come out and said they were willing to be part of the larger conversation, the community consultation, so I think this is a natural progression and a step in the right direction."

Federal government decision

Levy's remarks come as the director of Ottawa's Sandy Hill Community Health Centre campaigns to open a supervised injection site in its Nelson Street building as early as the spring of 2017.

Rob Boyd is running public meetings to talk about his plans the next three Monday nights as part of his plan to get approval for a supervised injection site from the centre's board of directors in June.

If they give the go-ahead, Boyd has said he will apply to the federal government for an exemption from Canada's drug laws to open the centre, which Health Minister Jane Philpott has said are one of the ways the Liberal government is looking to reduce the number of overdoses across the country.

An example of supervised injection equipment. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"We're able to provide harm reduction information and harm reduction supplies to people who use drugs but we're not able to provide a safe space where they can go and use. It's something we get a lot of feedback from directly from our participants, it's a huge gap that has existed," Salam said.

"The fact Ottawa Public Health has come out and said we'll work with our community partners, we'll be part of these larger (conversations), we'll explore this comprehensive public health harm reduction program in Ottawa is huge."

"Instead of them doing (drugs) in the back alleys and your kid's playground, they're going to have a safe place to go," MacLean said.

"I know as a former drug user I could have cut my time in half using drugs if I had known there was a place that cared about me that I could go to."

Canada has two supervised injection sites, both in Vancouver, although Toronto Public Health is working to open three there.

Other city officials opposed

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has said he would rather focus on treatment programs for people addicted to drugs than a supervised injection site.

On Friday, his office said he was unavailable for an interview but sent a statement when asked for comment on Dr. Levy's comments.

"Ottawa Public Health is a community partner in harm reduction initiatives and should be at the table whenever community groups are discussing this topic," it said.

"Regardless of my opinion, I respect the role of (Ottawa Public Health) and of our Medical Officer of Health."

Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau has also come out against the idea for Ottawa, saying the area around a site would attract too much drug-related activity and become a safety risk.

Boyd has said he would bring the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre proposal to the federal government with or without the city's support, although he's hoping to have it.

On Friday, Ottawa-Vanier MPP Madeleine Meilleur, the province's attorney general and representative for the riding that includes Sandy Hill, said she's not opposed to supervised injection sites but the province doesn't have as much to do with the process.

"It's a federal (and) municipal responsibility so we were very clear that if the municipality wants it we will respond to their request, but it's not going to be imposed on the municipality," she said.

With files from Claudine Richard