Famous Activist Makes The Case for Supervised Injection Sites in Toronto

By Zachary Siegel 03/17/16

A man dubbed Canada's "most famous junkie" recently addressed the misconceptions and concerns surrounding supervised injection sites.

 Harm Reduction Activist Makes The Case for Supervised Injection Sites in Toronto
Dean Wilson Still from "Fix: The Story of an Addicted City"

Dean Wilson, who has been called Canada’s “most famous junkie,” came out in strong favor for a supervised injection site to open in Toronto. “If you clear all the smoke and mirrors away, it’s just good medicine,” he said.

Wilson rose to fame in 2002 for his major role in a documentary called Fix: The Story of an Addicted City, wherein his drug addiction to cocaine and heroin are grimly detailed alongside his political fight with city hall to help drug users stay alive.  

As a veteran injection drug user, Wilson utilized services offered by Insite, a supervised injection facility (SIF) located in Vancouver’s rugged Downtown Eastside. When Canada’s government aimed to shut the facility down, Wilson was there fighting to save it. The case was eventually brought in front of Canada's Supreme Court where they voted in favor of the SIF. 

Wilson recently addressed many of the concerns, misconceptions, and persistent myths surrounding supervised injection sites. In 2003, Wilson recalls, local business owners feared Insite would cause increases in crime, drug use, and public nuisance in general. Not only did that not happen, he said, but the complete opposite occurred. Since Insite opened, overdose deaths and public injection have both decreased. 

There are other positive outcomes Wilson listed, such as giving entrenched drug users, some of the most marginalized and disenfranchised people, access to health care and counseling. Wilson points out that this saves the public from paying for frequent hospital visits while improving the health and quality of life for people who otherwise are shunned from medical care. 

Wilson credits his ability to stay off of heroin to the staff at Insite. He said the trust developed between him and the staff over the years was critical to his success. 

Epidemiologist and professor at Brown University, Brandon Marshall, has studied supervised injection facilities for several years, and agrees with Wilson about the efficacy of SIFs, which often get bad press for “enabling” drug users. 

In an interview with Toronto’s Metro paper, Marshall busted several prevailing myths: 

Myth: A supervised injection facility will increase disorder or crime in a neighborhood.

“That’s actually not what we saw in Vancouver. We saw the opposite. There were studies published by my colleagues that showed reductions in drug-related litter, like syringes, in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood after the facility opened. Crime, likewise, tends not to increase, if anything, it decreases.”

Myth: Supervised injection leads to increased injection drug use.

Vancouver-based studies showed no uptick in injection drug use when a supervised injection site opened. “The vast majority of users had been using a long time,” Marshall said.

Myth: Medical professionals shouldn’t support supervised injection sites because they’ve sworn to do no harm.

The truth is quite the opposite, Marshall said. A review of nursing policy found that it would it be against accepted policy to not provide services, such as supervised injection, that help prevent overdose and death. “It’s part of medical practice to provide these services where appropriate,” he said.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.