Robert Lesser, Chief Superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's (RCMP) Drug Enforcement Program, called last week for Canada to undertake a nationwide study of the merits of safe injection sites for injection drug users. The Mounties are Canada's premier nationwide law enforcement agency.
Lesser's comments came in Montreal during a national conference on Hepatitis C, where the Canadian Health Department reported that HIV/AIDS cases related to injection drug use will cost Canada $6 billion in the next six years and drug-related Hepatitis C will cost even more. Lesser told the conference that more than half of Canada's estimated 125,000 injection drug users are infected with one or the other of the diseases. Safe injection sites are "something we have to look at," he told the audience.
"Certain European cities seem to be pleased with [safe injection sites] as part of an integrated approach," the Vancouver Sun quoted Lesser. "They've found that it's reduced crime in the areas where safer injection sites existed."
Lesser pointed to the examples of Frankfurt
and Zurich, and added that safe injection sites should occur in the context
of an integrated harm reduction package. "It has to be part of a
more comprehensive approach that will include social services, employment
assistance," Lesser said. "We're talking about a more integrated,
a more holistic approach to safe injection and
"We need to find out if that would apply equally well in Canada, would it not work in Canada, or are there some made-in-Canada solutions that are part of a comprehensive program," Lesser continued. "Right now, there is really no evidence to support at all or argue against [safe injection sites] within the Canadian context."
Lesser may get his wish in June. A federal-provincial committee of deputy health ministers is expected to recommend then that a feasibility study on supervised safe injection sites be conducted. Safe injection sites remain a delicate topic for elected officials, however. Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement, who attended the Montreal conference, declined the Sun's request for comment on whether he favors safe injection sites, saying only that the issue is complex and a balanced approach is needed.
Even in Vancouver, where such sites are part of the city's proposed "four pillars" approach to hard drug use and related problems (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/162.html#vancouver3.0), politicians were quick to demand that the city not be a national guinea pig. City councilor Lynne Kennedy told the Sun she could support studying safe injection sites if it took place across the country. "We don't want to be the first city and the only city to do this," she said. "If it was to be happening in Vancouver, it should be happening in other cities across the country."
She also cautioned that safe injection sites should not be at the forefront of reforms. "No one's been recommending to us that we start there," she told the Sun. "You need to have a lot of things happening in the community first. We need to be really secure on our funding for treatment, which we aren't at present."
Harm reduction activists working Vancouver's mean streets have no such hesitation about the need for safe injections sites. "They save lives and we need them," Ann Wilson of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) told DRCNet.
According to Wilson, Vancouver's much vaunted "four pillars" program of prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and law enforcement is stalled. "The process is endless. Instead of declaring a public health emergency and acting, the Health Board has undertaken a niggling process of community consultation seemingly designed to draw things out until significant opposition emerges," she said. "It's an incredible thing, the only pillar that is really working right now is law enforcement. Street users now have less than they ever have."
What's worse, said Wilson, is the ongoing process of the "commercialization" of harm reduction. "We got a new life skills and contact center, but we're angry because they are not consulting users and are hiring non-users. Everybody makes a buck off the junkies."