Planned Safe Injection Sites Put On Hold In Canada

By Paul Gaita 08/16/18

Advocates of safe injection sites called the Canadian health minister's decision to halt the opening of the facilities "horrifying."

Insite safe injection facility in Vancouver

A trio of planned safe injection sites in Ontario, Canada have been put on hold while the province's new health minister conducts a review to determine if such facilities "have merit."

Health Minister Christine Elliott said that she remains unconvinced that such sites are effective in reducing drug overdose deaths and the spread of HIV infection; she also cited concerns from neighboring businesses over security and biohazard refuse as core reasons for the review.

Advocates of safe injection sites and harm reduction policies called the health minister's decision "horrifying," that runs contrary to the needs of individuals in the midst of Canada's opioid epidemic.

The CBC reported that in a letter sent on Friday, August 10, to health integration networks and health units in the province, Roselle Martino, assistant deputy minister of the population and public health division, said that the approval process for new safe injection sites in the cities of Toronto, Thunder Bay, and St. Catharines would be halted immediately.

The sites would allow for supervised injection of opioid drugs, grant access to harm reduction support and allow users to safely dispose of needles and other paraphernalia.

In the letter, Elliott wrote that she will be "reviewing the evidence and speaking to experts to ensure that any continuation of supervised consumption services and overdose prevention sites are going to introduce people into rehabilitation and ensure people struggling with addiction will get the help they need."

CTV News also noted that Elliott will address how local businesses have been impacted by existing sites. The network cited concerns by Mark Garner, a member of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (BIA) in Toronto, who said that his organization has found discarded needles in the area near the Works, the city's first supervised injection site, which opened in November 2017.

Garner stated to CTV that while his organization supports efforts to reduce drug overdoses, the businesses in the BIA have felt the need to increase security and allocate funding to clean up discarded needles, especially ones discarded in toilets which have caused plumbing issues.

"This is the number one tourist destination in Canada," he said. "How do we integrate that into the neighborhood, what resources are needed, and how do we make it safe for everybody?"

But harm reduction advocates and health care professionals have expressed alarm at the province's move, which some described as a decision motivated more by politics than any actual health concern.

"It's a complete disaster, and I do worry about people on the ground," said Marilou Gagnon, an associate professor of nursing and president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association. "The science is very clear that overdose prevention sites do work, and we've known this since the '80s. [I'm] extremely concerned about a government going against science."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.