Ottawa

Supervised injection site debate divides Ottawa city councillors

As Ottawa's top doctor voices his support for supervised drug injection sites, there's more of a mixed opinion among city councillors who may eventually play a key role in approving one.

April 18 board of health meeting expected to include talk about the issue

City councillors are split on whether Ottawa needs a supervised injection site. Clockwise from top left: Mathieu Fleury, Shad Qadri, Stephen Blais and Catherine McKenney. (CBC)

As Ottawa's top doctor voices his support for supervised drug injection sites, there's a mixed opinion among city councillors who may eventually play a key role in approving one.

Dr. Isra Levy, Ottawa's medical officer of health, put out a statement earlier this week about the benefits of a place where drug users can inject while being watched by trained staff and later said the city may need more than one of them.

The director of the downtown Sandy Hill Community Health Centre is also holding public meetings on the idea it could host a supervised injection site, pending approval of the federal government.

When asked Friday about supervised injection sites in Ottawa, city councillors expressed a wide range of opinions.

"My position is [that I'm] against it, but as chair of the board of health I have to look at new and advancing issues that are raised in the public health realm," said Stittsville Coun. Shad Qadri.

"I want to see the model that is being proposed by the Sandy Hill [Community Health Centre] and other partners. Let me be very clear, I'm not in favour of having an Insite or a supervised injection site with the Vancouver model … I'm in favour of something that would definitely help the opioid issue in terms of overdoses."

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who sits on the board of health, said she wants a site in Ottawa.

"When you have services that are already available and you embed something like a supervised consumption service or supervised injection site into those services, it makes it much easier," she said.

"We've got community health centres already doing harm reduction. I think we can embed those into those services. We've got vans already going out, why not have people able to supervise somebody? We're not increasing drug use, we're making it safer for people."

Crime, treatment raised

Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais said he's against supervised injection sites because he doesn't want the government to sanction something that's illegal.

"Police chief [Charles Bordeleau] is an expert in crime and he's against this," said Blais. "[Levy] is an expert in health, not an expert on crime."

 To me it's not just data about overdoses. It's about data on the treatment side.- Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury

"This is a criminal issue. Use of heroin is illegal and the sale of heroin feeds organized crime. I'm not sure why we would encourage the continued criminal behavior," he added.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, whose ward includes the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, said he wants to learn and talk more about the bigger issue of treating people with addictions before he takes a side.

"The biggest issue would be to say yes or no today," he said.

"I want the medical officer of health to come back with data. To me it's not just data about overdoses. It's about data on the treatment side. How many beds do we have in Ottawa? What's the waiting list?"

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has said he would rather see resources go toward treatment than a supervised injection site.

Municipal approval sought

Levy will give his usual verbal update at the April 18 Ottawa Board of Health meeting, Qadri said, where the city's top doctor will likely talk about his support for supervised injection sites.

Qadri said there are no motions or recommendations coming yet from the board.

The opinion of city council matters because Eric Hoskins, Ontario's health minister, said Friday he wants municipalities to approve supervised injection sites before the province gives the go-ahead.

However, Hoskins wouldn't rule out approving a proposal from a community health centre that is granted an exemption from federal drug laws.

Rob Boyd, the director of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, said he wants the city's approval of his proposed supervised injection site — but he would apply to the federal government without it.

Boyd has said he'll bring results of the public meetings he's hosting to the centre's board of directors in June before potentially applying for a supervised injection site in their Nelson Street building, which could open as soon as spring 2017.