Should Ottawa Have a Safe Injection Site? – Nicholas Little
The cover of the August 13 2009 Ottawa Sun asked:
The cover story article by Donna Casey explains how Toronto’s Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael’s Hospital is midway through a feasibility study, which assesses whether Toronto and Ottawa would benefit from medical clinics where staff oversee drug users injecting or using illegal drugs, including heroin and crack cocaine. Currently, Vancouver is the only city in North America that has a safe injection site.
The study, funded by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network, was originally requested by the City of Toronto as part of its drug strategy. According to Dr. Ahmed Bayoumi, the study’s co-principal investigator, the research was broadened to include Ottawa, due in part to the city’s higher-than-average HIV rate.
Predictably, Ottawa police chief Vern White is trotting out the same excuses used by Vancouver police prior to their city’s opening of the Insite safe injection site. Interestingly, Vancouver police were won over by Insite shortly after the facility was in operation, and are now supportive of it, as is Vancouver city hall. Nonetheless, Ottawa’s police chief says that safe injection sites look good on paper but only wind up helping a fraction of the drugs users they intend to help intended drug addicts. He compared the area around Vancouver’s Insite to “a Beirut war zone” and claimed the economic and social costs to the communities around an Ottawa safe injection site would be staggering. “No one wants a supervised injection site in their community,” Chief White says.
Not so, actually.
I went to see my friend Chris in his office just down the hall from my own, with pictures of eyeballs and pills and the lyrics to the Velvet Undergound’s Heroin posted on the walls. Chris has been injecting drugs for forty-four years. Forty-four years. He calls himself the Original Gangsta and describes himself first and foremost as a harm reduction advocate for drug users. We work together at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa.
I asked Chris the very question posed on the cover of the August 13th Ottawa Sun:
“Chris, should we have a safe injection site in Ottawa?”
“Absolutely we should.”
“Alright then. Ottawa’s Chief of Police says we shouldn’t. So tell me, Chris, why should Ottawa have a safe injection site?”
Here’s the list Chris dictated to me as YouTube videos of the Dave Clark Five blared in the background:
• First of all, drug addicts are humans and are entitled to the same health care as everyone else.
• Because most drugs are still illegal and unregulated, they’re frequently impure. Until we decriminalize all drugs, it’s safer to use them with medical staff nearby to assist with bad reactions or overdoses. They can also help with things like infections and abscesses.
• To prevent the transmission of diseases like HIV and Hep C through harm reduction.
• It’ll keep people from using in the streets.
• It will reduce the amount of irresponsibly discarded injection equipment out in the community.
• It lets you use drugs at your own pace and more safely because you aren’t afraid of the cops busting you – when you use outside, you’re just trying to jam as fast as you can.
• “…and basically, bottom line, the best reason is cost. The strain on the health care system because we don’t have safe injection sites is ridiculous…”
That made Chris think of some other stuff:
You know, the only smart thing that former Ontario Premier Mike Harris ever did was implement the methadone program in this province; $5 a day per person is such a minute amount compared to the cost of running prisons and the strain on the health care system. And it’s amazing what it did for the safety of the general community too. With the harm reduction of a methadone-based program, people are being given their daily dose without having to harm the general community through crime. So it’s also harm reduction for the community at large. Not only does it lower the amount of crime, it also lowers the number of people who are going to prison because of that crime. Think of the cost of the prison system! I’m not saying everybody who isn’t using methadone is out there robbing people and places, but you get my point. There absolutely are functioning addicts and you wouldn’t ever believe they use. The furthest thing from your mind would be to think that that person is a drug addict.
And you know, if you’re gonna interview me, you better put something in there about Bill C-15 too. You don’t have to explain all the details of Bill C-15. The important part to understand is that, with this Bill, the government is seeking to put more street level users and dealers in provincial jails for drugs. More people in jail! People need to know that there’s going to be an even bigger strain on the provincial coffers if this Bill passes in Parliament and the Senate. Maximum-minimum sentencing is equal to the War on Drugs in the U.S.A.
I left Chris to team up with Gladys Knight & the Pips on a red hot rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia” and headed back to my office, where, not very long after, a young guy I’d never seen before came in to get fresh needles, cookers, purified water, etc. He grabbed a handful of condoms, so I asked if he also wanted lube. “That’d be great,” he said. As I was stocking him up with the lube, he asked, “Hey, do you know if there’s a safe place to shoot in the city?” It’s pretty rare that someone who injects drugs asks me – someone who doesn’t – about safe places to shoot because, really, they’re the experts.
“Are you not from here?” I asked.
“No, I just got here actually.”
It also seemed odd that he’d asked about a safe place to shoot because nowhere but Vancouver does a place like that even exist.
“Are you from Vancouver originally?” I asked.
“No, I’m not. I just got released from the Pen.”
“Ah, okay,” I said. “Well, I wish I could tell you a safe place to shoot, but there’s no place guaranteed to be safe. There’s a guy here who can chat with you about some places that’d be safer than others, though. You want me to grab him?”
“Well, I got friends waiting for me outside. I better get going.”
“No problem,” I told him. “I’m sorry I can’t give you a better answer than that today, man, but come in and see us again whenever you like. And next time you do, I’ll introduce you to Chris. He’ll explain a bit more about the city for you.”
“Cool. I will. It’s kind of shitty there’s no safe place.”
And when you really think about it, what difference would it make if Ottawa had yet one more authorized site where people could use drugs in a regulated, supervised environment? Imagine if the cover of the August 13th Ottawa Sun had looked like this:
During prohibition, when alcohol was illegal, many of the problems we currently associate with illegal drug use were also associated with drinking. Corruption, crime, smuggling, impure and unsafe production practices, public nuisance, chaotic neighbourhoods, private residences operating as makeshift drug stores, illness and death…
The government’s classification and the cops’ enforcement of certain drugs as legal (nicotine, alcohol) and others as illegal (cocaine, heroin), is entirely arbitrary and prejudiced. The botched construction of Montréal’s Olympic Stadium in 1976 left the city with a massive debt. Until a few years ago, the city was still paying it off with a tax levied on the sale of tobacco. Think about it. If you rolled a joint with tobacco in Quebec anytime between 1976 and 2006, possession of pot could land you in jail, while possession of tobacco was not only permitted, the government had a vested interest in your continued consumption. Why do we allow the government and police to rule us in this hypocritical way?
Over time we come to internalize that hypocrisy. Anyone who has worked or partied extensively in pretty much any nightclub in Canada knows that coke is everywhere. Yet how many times have I witnessed piss drunk people, who were just doing lines off the backs of toilet tanks, walk out of the club and onto the street and openly mock people who smoke crack? Crack and cocaine are the same drug!
When it comes to so many other health and social issues, we have no trouble understanding that criminalization only pushes people further underground and renders them less safe. Imagine trying to prevent HIV transmission among gay men in 2009 if homosexuality was still illegal in Canada, as it was before 1969. Doesn’t the history of this particular community being cast out as criminals play into the very reason they are a high-risk group for HIV today? Is it any different with drug users?
I watched that guy in my office head off to shoot up who-knows-where outside, when he obviously would have rather stayed right where he was and done his drugs in safety, and it seemed pretty clear to me what the answer to the Sun’s headline question is.
Yes, Ottawa should have a safe injection site. The sooner, the better.
Nicholas Little is an Anglo-Albertan who decamped to Montreal sometime in the late nineties “to learn French and be gay”. He then moved to Ottawa, Ontario, where he was an HIV outreach worker in bathhouses, bars and online chat rooms for several years. In 2008 Nicholas helped found POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate and Resist), an organization of current and former sex workers advocating for recognition of their labour, Charter and human rights. Nicholas recently moved again – this time to the UK – to pursue further studies. You can follow his blog at http://ickaprick.blogspot.com