Blue lights meant to deter drug use removed at St. Paul's Hospital after concerns about possible harm, stigma

Blue lights have been installed in some gas stations and hospitals in an effort to deter people from using intravenous drugs. The lights are supposed to make it difficult for a drug user to see their veins, making it harder to inject. 

Blue lights are supposed to make it difficult for drug users to see veins, making it harder to inject drugs

Bathrooms in some places have been outfitted with blue lights in an attempt to curb intravenous drug use by making it harder to find veins. (CBC)

Blue lights intended to curb drug use have been removed from St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon, following concerns raised by a pharmacy professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

Similar blue-coloured have been installed in some gas stations and hospitals in an effort to deter people from using intravenous drugs. The lights are supposed to make it difficult for a drug user to see their veins, and thus make it harder for them to inject. 

But some say the lights are not as effective as people may think. 

"The blue lights do reduce the visibility of veins," said Jaris Swidrovich, an assistant professor in the college of pharmacy at the University of Saskatchewan who also works in St. Paul's Hospital.

"However, people will often still believe in their own abilities to inject and inject anyway, and sometimes they can end up injecting into an artery or surrounding tissues."

It's also harder to clean up blood and bodily fluids because they're harder to see under the blue lights, increasing the danger of blood-borne virus transmission, said Swidrovich, who also highlighted the issue of stigmatizing drug users.

"Just with the stigma and increased risk, I felt that it wasn't appropriate to have [the blue lights] … anywhere, but certainly not in St. Paul's Hospital."

Drug users need support: hospital exec

Tracy Muggli agrees with those concerns. Muggli, the new executive director of St. Paul's Hospital, made sure the lights were removed.

She said the previous thinking was that the lights would improve safety in the hospital. 

The bathrooms on the main floor were closed for a period, and the lights were installed when they were reopened, she said. Muggli, who wasn't executive director at that point, said drug use in the hospital's bathrooms was a considerable issue at the time.

"I think people did not have any place to go to use injection drugs and so found a spot where they felt perhaps safe to go do that," she said. The decision was made to install the lights in an effort to improve safety, she said.

"However, what happened is that on the main floor … they discovered it was challenging for elderly people to navigate in those bathrooms because it is darker," she said. "It was a problem."

Muggli said when Swidrovich told her about the lights, she was concerned not only about the harm they could cause, but also about the stigma around drug use.

"We are a hospital, and people who use injection drugs are often very vulnerable and need help, need support," she said. "I certainly wanted to support those who are most vulnerable and provide compassionate care."

That prompted Muggli to dig into why people are using injection drugs in the bathrooms in the first place. 

In addition to the removal of the lights, needle dropboxes have now been installed in the bathrooms.

Muggli said the rapid access addiction medicine program at St. Paul's Hospital has been helping people who struggle with substance use, and she's hoping to help people get away from feeling they need to use the bathroom as a safe place to inject drugs. 

Swidrovich said he also hopes the upcoming opening of Saskatoon's supervised consumption site — set to be opened by Prairie Harm Reduction, formerly known as AIDS Saskatoon — will give intravenous drug users other options.

The site is set to open Oct. 1.