9th May 02:25
OT Vancouver -- Canada's alternative to the war on drugs OTOT
Injection site gets go-ahead
Health Canada approves three-year supervised-injection
trial in Downtown Eastside
Amy O'Brian and Frances Bula
Wednesday, June 25, 2003
The first legally approved safe-injection site for drug
users in North America got the go-ahead from Health Canada Tuesday for a
three-year trial in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
The federal government is also kicking in $1.5 million
over four years to cover the cost of a scientific evaluation of the pilot
run by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which will likely begin
operations in early September.
The news produced quiet jubilation when it became official
Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell beamed as he announced the
news to his councillors, many of whom stood and applauded the news in what
was clearly an emotional moment.
"Everybody in here should take pride in this. We are the
first in Canada, the first in North America," said Campbell, while several
councillors praised him for his leadership.
The battle over drug policy and safe injection sites
produced a political storm in the city last year. Campbell and his Coalition
of Progressive Electors council swept to power last November in large part
because of their promise to campaign for injection sites -- something that
several European cities and Sydney, Australia, have tried and found
effective -- and other new solutions to the city's drug-addiction problems.
Injection sites have been championed by health advocates
in Europe, Australia and Canada as an effective strategy to lower overdose
deaths and infection rates among drug users, while encouraging them to take
better care of themselves without insisting they quit using drugs
Campbell came under frequent attack in recent months
because the site hadn't opened, in spite of his campaign promise that it
would be open Jan. 1, while police initiated a crackdown on the Downtown
Eastside's open drug market -- a move that made it look as though
Vancouver's attempt at a new drug policy was turning into just the same old
"war on drugs."
"I hope now that those who were so doubtful this would
happen will give you a little credit," Councillor Tim Stevenson told
Campbell. "It has been your leadership that has brought this to fruition."
Campbell in turn praised former Vancouver mayor Philip
Owen, who spearheaded the city's efforts to develop a new drug policy, along
with the health authority and police.
"It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to imagine
this initiative without Philip Owen," he said.
Campbell said he expects the site will now open in early
September, once construction started by the Vancouver Coastal Health
Authority, which started last month, is finished.
"It's a good day," said Viviana Zanocco, a spokeswoman for
the health authority.
"We're trying to lower the infection rate, the overdose
rate, just really connect with IV [intravenous] drug users and improve
health outcomes and implement some harm reduction."
The site will be located at 135 and 139 East Hastings. The
$1.2 million tab for the renovation work is being paid by the province.
But the health authority hasn't yet secured the $2 million
per year it needs to operate the site. Zanocco said several applications for
operating money have been filed and are likely to be approved now that the
authority has the go-ahead from Health Canada.
The health authority has applied for operational funding
through the federal drug strategy's primary health care transition fund, a
fund of about $800 million set aside by Ottawa about two years ago. An
application for the money has also been filed with the Vancouver
Agreement -- a joint project with all three levels of government aimed at
improving the Downtown Eastside.
The annual operating budget would cover staffing and
supply costs for the site, which Zanocco said will likely be open 18 hours a
"This is subject to change, but we're looking at having
one registered nurse, one licensed practical nurse and an addictions
counsellor to be present at all times," she said.
The health authority will likely also hire staff from the
"Sometimes [users] don't relate well to medical
professionals telling them what to do, so [peer staffing] is just like a
different counselling level," Zanocco said.
Recent health authority statistics show there are about
4,700 injection drug users in the Downtown Eastside. About 95 per cent of
them have hepatitis and about one third are HIV positive.
For the past three months, the Housing Action Committee
has been running its own, unofficial, safe injection site on the Downtown
Eastside. David Cunningham, a member of the committee, said the Health
Canada announcement is nothing to get excited about.
"I think it's too little, too late," he said. "I think
enough people have already died. I don't think we should celebrate this.
They [Health Canada] should have acknowledged it as a health catastrophe
from the get-go."
Cunningham said the Housing Action Committee will continue
running its own safe injection site even when the health authority open its
site in September.
Fiona Gold, a street nurse who works on the Downtown
Eastside, was thrilled with the announcement, but said there is much more
work that needs to be done in the area of drug treatment.
"It's a great step for Vancouver and for Canada," she
said. "It's the beginning of a more sane and humane drug policy, but it's
only part of a treatment continuum."
Judy McGuire, acting executive director of the Downtown
Eastside Youth Activities Society, was also pleased with the announcement,
but wants guidelines in place for youth who may be using the site.
McGuire said "there will be ... adults hanging around
those sites who, in fact, could be predators against youth, so I think there
should be definite protocols drawn up in terms of how youth use those
© Copyright 2003 Vancouver Sun
rather than building character, adversity tends to reveal it