Toronto Public Health is pushing towards implementing safe injection sites, but the plans won’t be stretching as far as the Durham region any time soon, according to Durham’s medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Kyle.
He says regulations and costs are barriers. “You would, of course, need to not only set up a site [and] not only have a supervising nurse, you have to pay for the nurse,” he says. “You need a ready supply of whatever medication would be the most useful for the drug using population. There would need to be security measures put in place.”
Durham is, however, already home to many harm reduction programs that also work towards creating a safer environment for intravenous drug users.
Beth Whalen has seen people from all walks of life come through the doors of the harm reduction program at the John Howard Society of Durham. She is the coordinator of Project X-Change, and has been working with the program exchanging clean needles to intravenous drug users for more than 18 years.
There has been controversy about safe injection sites and harm reduction programs over the years because of the fear of illegal drug use.
“There was always a bit of controversy, particularly in the beginning. It’s gotten much better in recent years,” Whalen says. “We just did our best to educate and inform folks that this is a health perspective…needle exchange programs were initiated to try to cut back on the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C and B and other blood borne diseases.”
According to Whalen, 80 to 85 per cent of her clients are addicted to some form of an opioid, which takes the form of medications such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet. Out of the clients addicted to opioids, she says almost all started using them as legitimate prescriptions from their doctors.
“With such a high number of our clients using opioids, the risk of overdose, and overdose related deaths, is exceptionally high,” says Whalen. “We had nine overdose related deaths between December of 2014 and January of 2015.”
She once worked with a young woman who used to come in for support on a regular basis. She was in treatment for almost a year before she relapsed. After her relapse she went to see Whalen. She began to cry and apologize for disappointing her.
“All I kept thinking about afterwards was ‘me, she was worried about what I thought,’” says Whalen.
Harm reduction programs and safe injection sites are about more than just distributing clean supplies.
“It’s letting [clients] know that somebody actually cares. It’s letting them know that you’re there for them regardless,” she says. “There’s somebody out there that’s willing to work with [intravenous drug users] and be completely non-judgemental.”
She sometimes gets frustrated when people don’t understand that kicking an addiction is not easy. It can hit anyone at anytime. She believes we could all potentially be one injury, one accident or one illness away from becoming addicted to something.
“I’ve met some absolutely amazing people from all walks of life. Addiction doesn’t know race, doesn’t know religion [and] doesn’t know socioeconomic status,” Whalen says.
Safe injection sites have the support of Oshawa mayor John Henry. “First you have to recognize that people are going to inject no matter what,” he says. “Creating a safe site means that they’ll be supervised in an environment where, if they need help, that they can get it.”
These sites don’t condone the use of illegal drugs, according to Henry. “It’s still a challenge, but what [they’re] trying to do is make sure that those who have specific needs are in a safe environment where they receive not only the care, but the necessary support that [drug users] would get from an addiction centre.”