Positive impact of safe-injection sites is well-documented and immense

(Published in the Montreal Gazette)

Having visited a safe-injection site in Europe, I can say with great certainty that I would be grateful for, not fearful of, the establishment of such sites in Montreal.

As part of McGill’s Comparative Health Systems Program, I visited one of the longest standing and most effective safe-injection sites in the world, in Switzerland, the birthplace of the safe consumption room itself. “Quai 9” stands alone in a sea of luxury stores and four-star hotels, only a few blocks away from scenic Lake Geneva (a thriving tourist hot spot). Yes, a safe-injection site exists in the heart of Geneva’s ritzy commercial district, and the city has yet to implode. Surrounding streets are not rife with crime and violence. Dirty needles do not litter the sidewalks. Neighbouring stores, banks, and restaurants have carried on, business as usual, for years.

The building features couches and a small kitchen in the common area, along with a designated room with sterilized tables and chairs for safe consumption. In a world that too often leaves them without options, drug users are here awarded a few moments of autonomy, community and, above all, dignity. Visitors, many of whom are without homes and jobs, are able to take a breather from the streets, grab a drink of water, shower, nap or just socialize in the common area.

The site receives 130 visits each day. Many visitors express intentions of quitting, but some of them do not. All are welcomed by the site’s competent medical staff, no questions asked.

What many fail to grasp is that drug users who do not wish to quit still have an active interest in protecting themselves as much as possible. Drug users, even those who do not wish to quit, seek refuge in safe-injection sites because they care and worry about their own health — a motive many find difficult to understand, given the mischaracterization of drug addiction as a conscious decision to continually self-harm.

Virtually all injection drug users, whether they intend to quit or not, do not want to contract infectious diseases and do not want to die by overdose. What communities must understand is that it is in both the broader community’s interest and that of drug users to help them protect themselves against these realities. The alternative is alleyway needle-sharing, the rampant spread of infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, and streets and sidewalks littered with dirty needles.

Montreal is pushing for three safe injection sites by this fall, despite staunch resistance from Conservatives at the federal level. The call is no doubt warranted after irrefutable evidence from sites like Vancouver’s Insite show plummeting rates of transmittable diseases by needle sharing and of deaths by overdose.

The fears that safe injection sites significantly alter their surrounding neighbourhoods or promote drug use among drug-naive individuals are both incredibly overblown and largely unsubstantiated. And yet, the positive impact such sites have on the health and basic human dignity of drug users, as well as the safety and sanitation of public spaces, is immediate, well-documented, and immense.

Like it or not, individuals with these illnesses exist, they do place value in their own health and safety, and like all other sick citizens, they are deserving of both medical attention and basic human dignity. Rona Ambrose believes Montreal citizens would veto the construction of these sites were they given the choice, but she seems to forget that reaching out to the most vulnerable among us, intelligently and with compassion, is what makes our community strong.


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