Is Edmonton ready for safe-injection service? Local group thinks so

Click to play video 'Safe injection service ‘long overdue’ in Edmonton' Safe injection service ‘long overdue’ in Edmonton
WATCH ABOVE: Street Works' needle exchange program handed out nearly 2 million needles between April 2015 and March 2016. As Vinesh Pratap found out, there's a push to add more tools in the harm prevention strategy here – Apr 5, 2016

EDMONTON – Between April 2015 and the end of March, 2016, Street Works has dispensed 1.75 million needles – that’s the highest number ever and a 22 per cent jump from the year before.

“Across the province, everyone is seeing a massive increase in the number of needles they are distributing,” Street Works spokesperson Marliss Taylor. “The issue of substance abuse is not going away.”

Now, the Edmonton group is advocating for safe-injection services in the city.

“Supervised injection services do not give drugs,” Taylor explained. “Supervised injection services give a place where people can go in order to be able to use their substances but to also access other services.

“It is healthier for the broader community, but it is also healthier then for that individual to be able to develop relationships with service providers and then to look at a wide range of other options in their lives,” Taylor said.

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The organization isn’t proposing a separate site be created, but rather that small-scale safe injection services be incorporated into existing facilities.

“I think that service is long overdue here,” Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor of Public Health at the University of Alberta, said.

She said it would improve the health of individuals as well as Edmonton communities.

READ MORE: Opening five safe-injection sites makes financial sense for Ontario: study

Two people battling addiction that Global News spoke to were incredibly supportive of the idea.

“That sounds really good,” said a woman who’s been drug addicted on and off for 10 years. “I think if there was a service, it would benefit a lot of us addicts.”

She didn’t want to give her name, but shared she uses drugs in public, sometimes near schools or children.

“It happens everywhere, anywhere. There’s no hiding it. We’re not very shy about where we go or where we do it as long as we get it into us.”

She’s concerned about her health and feels a safe injection service could also help addicts who wanted to get clean.

A man we spoke to, who’s been addicted to meth and fentanyl, agreed.

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“I’ve been trying to get off drugs for almost 10 years now. It’s been hard,” he said. “It’s a great idea for you guys to get a place for us to do what we do instead of out on the streets here.”

He said he’s constantly worried about his safety.

“One-hundred per cent… I’m worried all the time. But I can’t stop. It’s hard. It’s a disease almost. It’s a sickness.”

“It’s a tough world, especially when you get into the injections and stuff like that. The needle world, that’s a step up… Once you start injecting, that’s when you know you’ve hit rock bottom.”

READ MORE: Toronto’s top doctor calls for 3 safe-injection sites in city

Street Works believes providing the service will not only help those addicted to drugs, but also alleviate the health care system.

“What we would say is that harm reduction is a health service, that there’s a range of services that that includes. Needle exchange is one, overdose prevention is one, supervised injection services is one,” Taylor said.

“What we need is a tool kit with lots of tools in it. There’s not one solution to these issues; there have to be multiple.”

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City councillor Scott McKeen also believes it’s important to look at IV drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

“A lot of the causes of homelessness are related to mental illness and addiction and these are health-care issues,” he said. “What we know about people who are addicted to IV drug use is that they’re leading horrific lives.”

He supports the idea of adding safe injection services to already established facilities that already offer health services.

“What a safe injection site does is it allows us to save lives,” McKeen added. “It reduces the social disorder in communities.

“With a safe injection site, these people can be looked after and also given opportunities and pathways off IV drug use.”

READ MORE: Feds finally approve Vancouver safe-injection site operating for 14 years

Earlier this year, Health Canada granted approval for the operation of a second safe-injection clinic in Vancouver.

Health Canada said international and Canadian evidence shows that safe-injection sites have the potential to save lives and improve health without increasing drug use and crime in surrounding areas.

The former Conservative government waged a long legal battle against North America’s only free-standing safe-injection site — in Vancouver’s downtown eastside — but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it could stay open.

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“We need a wide range of options for people. We need to try lots of things and to see what’s going to work well,” Taylor said. “When it comes to supervised injection services, we know from the research in other locations in Canada – but also in Europe and Australia – that there have been great results from those.”

With files from Slav Kornik and Vinesh Pratap, Global News