Ottawa may need 'more than 1' drug injection site, city's top doctor says

The City of Ottawa's top doctor believes supervised drug injection sites "save lives," and said the city may want to consider multiple or mobile sites.

City needs 'right model' before moving ahead, says medical officer of health

An injection kit is shown at a supervised injection facility in Vancouver. Ottawa's public health agency had previously said it has no plans to open such a facility after Toronto health officials announced they're planning to open three supervised injection sites. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The City of Ottawa's top doctor says supervised drug injection sites "save lives," and said if the city chooses to welcome the facilities, it may need more than one.

"Safer, or supervised consumption sites are an unquestioned part of the spectrum of health services," said Dr. Isra Levy, the city's medical officer of health.

"Do we need one in Ottawa? We may need more than one." 

"The issue that then becomes part of this conversation is, what about access? To get good access, we may want to be looking at things like mobile services, we may want to be looking at services in other, existing, health facilities."

Since Toronto public health officials announced last month they're moving ahead with plans to open three supervised injection sites in that city, advocates for supervised injection sites (or SIS) have been calling on Ottawa Public Health to follow suit.

Levy released a statement Thursday in which he praised the effectiveness of supervised injected sites, but despite his praise, he stopped short of openly calling for one here.

Dr. Isra Levy says supervised injection sites "must be considered" as part of any plan to work with and treat people who inject drugs. (CBC)
"Evidence has shown that SIS save lives and offer other positive impacts for affected individuals, their loved ones, and the community at large. SIS, as a public health intervention, is well-established. They must be considered as part of any comprehensive approach in working with and treating people who inject drugs," he wrote.

But he added that he was "sensitive to, and take very seriously, the legitimate concerns expressed around public safety and the idea of supervised injection services in our city."

"We need to ensure that any SIS's in Ottawa will use the right model for those accessing services in this city, and for the communities in which they live," said Levy.

Mayor and police chief have opposed SIS

Supervised injection sites provide a hygienic environment where people with addictions can inject drugs under the supervision of staff, instead of covertly, potentially reducing the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, while also providing an opportunity for health and social service workers to provide treatment and counseling.

Supervised injection sites also help reduce overdoses and community issues such as public drug use and discarded needles, Levy wrote.

Both Ottawa mayor Jim Watson and police chief Charles Bordeleau have spoken out against allowing such sites in the city.

Watson has repeatedly said public money would be better spent on treatment programs, while Bordeleau has expressed concern that the area around such a site would become a haven for the drug trade and increase the risk to public safety.

But Levy said Ottawa Public health is already engaged in harm-reduction strategies. Last year the agency — through the the OPH needle and syringe program — provided service close to 20,000 times and handed out some 775,000 needles.