Toronto and Ottawa would benefit from supervised drug injection sites
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Wed Apr 11 2012
Used needles littering a park or alley are — sadly — a fact of life in parts of Toronto, especially downtown. Addiction is a grim reality. But giving addicts a safer place to use drugs can help curb the health risks, public nuisance and other problems associated with addiction.
That’s the upshot of a comprehensive four-year study into the merits of setting up publicly funded “consumption facilities” — a.k.a. supervised injection sites — for illegal drugs in Toronto and Ottawa. It’s an idea whose time has come.
Toronto could use three such centres, according to the study’s authors. Ottawa could benefit from two. The feasibility study doesn’t recommend specific locations but does note that sites should be put in areas where addicts congregate, and within an existing organization serving them. A downtown hospital setting, for example, might work well. A residential neighbourhood, not so much.
Given that caveat, safe injection sites warrant city council approval and provincial funding, at least on a trial basis.
The issue is controversial, with police generally opposed and many Canadians uneasy about using tax dollars to accommodate illegal drug use. Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews reacted to the report on Wednesday by saying experts are divided, therefore: “We have no plans to pursue supervised sites at this time.” Not an encouraging response.
The meticulous study by researchers at the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital highlights the potential benefits of providing clean, safe centres for users of heroin or other injection drugs. Such sites reduce the risk of transmitting blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV. They help prevent drug overdoses. And they put addicts in touch with professionals who can steer them toward treatment programs or social services.
“It’s a good investment,” said study co-author Dr. Ahmed Bayoumi. “We’ll have people living longer.”
Humanitarian concerns aside, there are practical benefits for city residents as fewer addicts “shoot up” in public places such as washrooms, alleys, parks, streets and stairwells, as many do now.
The report recommends three smaller, spread out sites for Toronto instead of a single, centrally located one.
Despite the solid case for helping people in the grip of addiction, Toronto seems to be headed the wrong way. A George St. men’s shelter called School House, for example, is on the verge of closing. It provides harm reduction by letting residents drink beer in a supervised setting. That’s better than drinking in the street.
Predictably, opponents of safe injection sites are calling for more study. But at some point that just serves to obstruct. This latest report is comprehensive and convincing. This is about harm mitigation, not social approval.
At Queen’s Park, Matthews notes that the province is “always prepared to listen to good advice” and makes its decisions “based on evidence.” If so, it should back the setting up of safe injection sites. The same goes for Toronto City Council. Much as we might wish otherwise, the need is there. Let’s deal with it.
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