The hemisphere's first officially-sanctioned safe injection site, where hard drug users can shoot up under medical supervision, will open in September in Vancouver, British Columbia. While a safe injection site has been envisioned as a key part of the city's Four Pillars (prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction) strategy to deal with its Downtown Eastside, home to one of the hemisphere's largest and most concentrated hard drug-using populations, it has been held up for two years as local authorities struggled to win federal government approval. That finally happened on June 24, when Health Canada gave the go-ahead to the plan by exempting the site from the nation's drug laws as part of a pilot program to research its effectiveness in reducing HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and other infectious diseases, as well as reducing overdoses.
"Under Canadian law and the international drug control agreements that Canada has signed, the only way a safe injection site can operate is to get an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act," explained Steve Leary, executive assistant to Mayor Larry Campbell, who championed the site. "This is officially a research program," he told DRCNet.
"There's a part of me that says I'm prepared to try anything to save people's lives and to help them overcome addiction," he added. "We're not going to get rid of drug trafficking and drug addiction in the city of Vancouver. That's not going to happen. What we will do is get it under control and those people who are addicted will be in a position to get the help they want."
According to the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which will manage the project, the site will offer injection supervision with emergency response for drug overdoses, injection-related first aid, access and referral to primary health care, addiction treatment service, mental health providers and harm reduction teaching and counseling. The site will offer 12 individual injection spaces and a "chill out" room, and could serve as many as 850 injectors each day. It will be open 18 hours per day and will be staffed at all times by a registered nurse, a licensed practical nurse and an addiction counselor.
"We now have the authority to open, and renovations are underway at a building on East Hastings Street, said Leary. "We should be ready by Labor Day."
Some Vancouver activists couldn't wait that long. Frustrated by the seemingly endless delays in winning approval for the site and angered by a police crackdown on the Downtown Eastside, activists associated with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (http://www.vandu.org) opened an unsanctioned safe injection site in the neighborhood in late April (http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/285/vancouverinjectionsite.shtml).
But now, they are applauding and welcome the chance to go out of the injection room business. "We're really glad to hear that the federal government has decided to get on board with the local government plan," said VANDU president Robert Weppler. "It makes me proud to be a Canadian to know that our federal ministers are looking out for the health and welfare of Canadians. Once the official safe injection site is up and running, we will close our doors," he told DRCNet.
And that depends on money that has not yet appeared. While Health Canada will provide US $1.1 million over the next four years to evaluate the program and the government of British Columbia is shelling out US $900,000 for renovations for the site, no one has yet stepped up to provide the estimated US million dollar annual cost of running of the safe injection site. "The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority has a million a year operating budget for this," said Leary, "but the city doesn't have the money to fund it because of our small funding base. The responsibility lies with other levels of government to fund this initiative. We've been working with the federal and provincial governments on this, and we believe there will be funding in place in time. We're eternally optimistic."
VANDU's Weppler was less so. "It's sad to see this bickering over costs," he said. "It is a shame that they are playing numbers games with the health of Canadians. We worry that the different government levels are going to start hemming and hawing, but we hope the local, provincial and federal levels will arrive at consensus soon."
If Vancouverites are worrying over how to pay for the safe injection site, US officials are going ballistic over the very idea. Harm reduction is "a lie" and "there are no safe injection sites," US drug czar John Walters told the Associated Press last week. "Drug abuse is a deadly disease. It's immoral to allow people to suffer and die from a disease we know how to treat."
But Mayor Campbell, a former narcotics officer and coroner, was in no mood to take advice from the Americans. "I think all you have to do is take a look at your prison system and your law enforcement to see if the drug war is being won in the states," he retorted. "It's an unmitigated disaster and they know it, but they can't back out of it." And now, leaving drug war orthodoxy behind, Vancouver is about to embark on a hemispheric first. Maybe the Americans could learn something from their northern neighbors.