Ottawa Public Health officials want to install vending machines across the city that will dispense clean needles and pipes in an attempt to curb drug overdoses and reduce the spread of transmitted disease like HIV and Hepatitis C.
The pilot project involves about five vending machines, which would be placed outside existing downtown health centres to complement the city’s harm reduction efforts.
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s deputy medical officer of health, said the facilities would give drug users tokens, which would be deposited in the machines to access supplies like clean needles, crack pipes and alcohol swabs. She said the machines would not replace face-to-face interactions.
“This distribution of supplies is key, yet we are finding there is a gap in our services after hours,” Etches told Global News. “This is meant to be a complimentary service where people can pick up a token as they are accessing face-to-face services that then allow them to access supplies in a machine 24 hours a day seven days a week.”
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Health centres throughout Ottawa currently provide access to clean inhalation and injection supplies, but they are generally only open until 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Etches said the vending machines would also provide information on how to access other services for drug users like counselling and addictions treatment.
“If we include that messaging in the machines we may be able to reach people we are not currently reaching,” said Etches. “Almost everybody in Ottawa would like to see less drug use, including often people who are using drugs who don’t want to be using drugs.”
Etches said the innovative harm reduction effort has been used in other countries like Australia and New Zealand.
“[Health officials] in Australia have found it doesn’t decrease the number of clients accessing face-to-face services and it’s mostly [complementary] to meet that gap after hours,” she said.
The project doesn’t have a firm start date as the city is still in talks with potential location partners and looking for a vending machine supplier. In 2014, vending machines were installed in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside offering crack pipes for 25 cents in an effort to help curb the spread of disease. Some criticized the decision as enabling drug users.
Etches said the machines will not dispense the opioid overdose antidote naloxone as it requires a face-to-face interaction on how to properly administer the lifesaving drug.
Canadian health agencies are also battling an opioid overdose epidemic that has led to hundreds of deaths in B.C. and Alberta and is moving eastward across the country.
In December, the federal government announced it was easing the rules around safe injection sites in an effort to prevent overdose deaths. Canada currently has only two legally sanctioned drug injection sites, both in Vancouver, but other cities are eyeing opening supervised consumption sites.
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