Opioid users in Windsor say a safe injection site will save lives
37 people died of opioid-related overdoses in 2016 in Windsor-Essex
Tom carries a Naloxone kit inside his leather jacket, snug tight against his chest — beside a heart that pumped infected blood through his body last February, potentially because of a dirty drug needle.
This is the 17th kit he's picked up for free from the AIDS Committee of Windsor since they taught him how to use the first one back in June.
"I've saved 16 people from June to December just with a Naloxone kit," he said, explaining that he's used the kit to reverse overdoses on friends, family — even saving people he didn't know.
"I was there at the right place at the right time."
Tom himself has been using opioids for three and a half years. CBC News has agreed not to use his last name at his request because he doesn't want to jeopardize future employment opportunities.
He's one of three people who either use opioids or are recovering from drug use in Windsor-Essex who are stepping forward to explain how a supervised injection site or a consumption site (not limited to only injection drugs) in the region could save lives.
They were all interviewed at the AIDS Committee of Windsor, where they have received support.
"The opioid missuse is an epidemic, it is," said Tom. "A clean injection site would be something that helped everybody from not overdosing, not dying."
Near death experience
Tom said he died twice in hospital last year. It was February when he went to the hospital, dealing with an infection he believes he picked up while using a dirty needle.
"I was in the hospital for 25 days," he said, adding he was told he had endocarditis. That kind of infection spreads germs through the bloodstream and attaches to the heart, according to a definition from the Mayo Clinic.
After he was released from the hospital, Tom said he curbed his drug use and turned to the AIDS Committee of Windsor for access to clean needles.
He said he's been able to connect with counselling services as well.
'Chance at survival'
Tom said he knows people who have used a supervised injection site in Vancouver and said he believes something similar in Windsor could save lives.
A site would include a medical professional that would be available to help someone injecting or consuming drugs they purchased elsewhere while at the site.
That professional would be able to administer potentially life-saving health care services if the person started to overdose.
"It's made it so basically everyone can have a chance at survival," said Tom.
'We need to take some action'
The Windsor-Essex Community Opioid Strategy released in January includes a long-term plan for the local Health Unit to investigate the feasibility of safe injection sites.
The Health Unit received $250,000 from the provincial government to complete the strategy which was first announced last August and sent out for public consultations in October.
Dr. Wajid Ahmed, acting medical officer of health for the Windsor Essex County Health Unit, first said publicly the area was dealing with an opioid crisis last March.
"We're at the stage where we already know we have a problem," said Byron Klingbyle, a harm reduction co-ordinator with the AIDS Committee of Windsor. "Conversation is not taking any action — we need to take some action."
Klingbyle said his organization wants to apply for an Overdose Prevention Site, which would be temporarily funded by the provincial government and aims to collect data on opioid use and overdoses at the site.
Klingbyle said he's looking for potential partners
"That would be fantastic, because it's a community problem and not just one community can address this issue and the more people on board the more effective it will be."
'People are dying'
"I think the city needs that right now, big time," said Matt Cascadden, who turned to the AIDS Committee of Windsor after battling drug and alcohol addiction.
Cascadden has seen the opioid crisis in the streets of Windsor and has even picked up used syringes in the city's downtown core — and, for him, the crisis centres on the people who have died.
"I lost seven friends last year," said Cascadden. "You know, they're not coming back ... this is not a fad. This is life right now, people are dying."
Cascadden said he's heard of people from all walks of life who are using drugs and thinks a supervised injection or consumption site could save lives.
"I think these sites, they promote safety and they promote a positive thing."
AJ Brown started using opioids at 15 - Tylenol 3s, codeine and Oxycontin - but managed to quit when he moved to Windsor two years later.
"When you like something you do end up gravitating back to it, so I went back to that at 17, 18," said Brown, now 25 years old.
At 21 he started injecting Hydromorphone, an opioid used to manage pain while he worked as a roofer.
"I guess if you want to get into the deeper aspect of it all I guess it's more of a coping mechanism," said Brown, when asked why he continues using.
Brown said that a supervised injection site would be something that helps curb overdoses through education and improve access to Naloxone.
"Yeah, it is out there but not accessible as it should be," said Brown. "To use there you have it immediately at the ready so if anybody in that case starts to overdose or they even think they're going to overdose you have that safety net there."
'Why not do something about it?'
"We know it's already going on," said Brown. "You're not going to stop it with some anti-drug campaign or a commercial on TV — it's really not going to help."
He said that a site like this would help prevent overdoses by making sure people using drugs are doing so properly and in a dose that won't kill them.
"To know that we can do something about it — why not do something about it? I think it's senseless to not."