In December, a project for four supervised injection sites in Montreal was put into action by the city’s public health department, which submitted a proposal to the provincial government requesting funding for the planned sites. The news comes after years of effort on the part of advocates across the city, who have been working to ensure the safety of drug users, despite the harmful and dangerous social stigma that surrounds drug use and addiction.
Supervised injection sites are centres where drug users can access clean needles and safely inject pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of a nurse or medical professional. Such sites are crucial in preventing the spread of infections and diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, among drug users, as well as preventing other injection-related problems such as overdose and vein damage. They also provide a safe, judgement-free space for drug users, and serve as a place for drug users to seek detox treatment or other forms of support if they so choose. Supervised injection sites have not been found to contribute to any sort of increase in crime or drug-related debris, nullifying the arguments of many critics. Furthermore, in terms of public health spending, the planned safe injection sites are expected to pay for themselves after four years.
Supervised injection sites are an important component of a harm reduction drug strategy, an approach that has been neglected at the federal level, particularly with the Conservative government’s misguided anti-drug campaign. This can be seen in measures such as the failed “Respect for Communities Act,” which sought to make it more difficult to open safe injection sites. With such a toxic climate at the federal level, the burden of crucial work falls to individual cities, oftentimes to community and advocacy organizations. One example of this is Vancouver’s Insite, the first supervised injection site on the continent. Insite’s impact has been pronounced: it has seen a decline of 35 per cent in overdose deaths at the clinic, compared to a 9 per cent drop city-wide, and there has been a 30 per cent increase in people seeking detox treatment since its opening – all despite the lack of federal support for its activities.
Here in Montreal, there will be multiple supervised injection sites, unlike the single Insite clinic in Vancouver. The project includes planned funding for three sites, as well as one mobile site. The sites hold the potential to make a tremendous impact; however, these projects will require ongoing support to ensure their success. Vancouver and Montreal, as of now, are the sole cities in Canada with plans for supervised injection sites, with none planned or present in the U.S. – a dispiriting sign for such an important resource that works against stigmatizing drug users.
The stigma surrounding drug users and addiction does not end with such initiatives, but they certainly help by normalizing the safe supervision of drug use. Open discussion is the most important step toward implementing adequate harm reduction strategies to face the reality of addiction and work toward healing. Addiction should not be treated as a criminal problem but as a public health issue.
—The McGill Daily Editorial Board