December 4, 2016 6:32 pm
Updated: December 4, 2016 9:45 pm

Edmonton councillors to discuss safe-injection sites

WATCH ABOVE: Safe injection sites are being proposed for cities across the country including Edmonton. A report on the matter is headed to the Community and Public Services Committee on Monday. Julia Wong reports.

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A report on safe-injection sites is headed to the City of Edmonton’s Community and Public Services Committee on Monday.

The report by city staff outlines background information on safe-injection sites and the steps needed to establish the service in Edmonton.

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

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A federal exemption and provincial support are needed before the service can be started. The report states a letter of opinion indicating support is also needed from the city and Edmonton Police Service.

Four sites are being proposed – one at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and three others in existing agencies that already serve drug users. The report states there should be no cost to the city since the service will be added to existing organizations.

Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, said a survey done in 2014 showed that more than 90 percent of 320 drug users were injecting and 26 per cent of that group said they had shared, borrowed or lent a needle in the last six months.

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

There is significant risk to sharing needles, Hyshka said.

“HIV obviously is the most significant. Hepatitis C is very common. In Edmonton, the people who use drugs and the people who inject, the rates of Hepatitis C are between 70 and 75 per cent prevalent. That’s very high and much higher than other parts of the world,” she said.

Watch Below: Street Works’ needle exchange program handed out nearly 2 million needles between April 2015 and March 2016. As Vinesh Pratap found out in this April 2016 report, there’s a push to add more tools in the harm prevention strategy here.

While Edmonton has a Streetworks program that distributes needles, there is little access to the program on evenings and weekends.

“When we ask people why they were sharing needles in this survey, the number one barrier people identified was not having regular access on evenings and weekends,” Hyshka said.

Hyshka, who is also a member of the Access to Medically Supervised Injection Services advisory committee, said safe-injection sites benefit not only drug users — but the community as a whole.

“I don’t think these services will change the scene to the extent it will eliminate drug use. It really is about bringing people into healthcare, helping them connect in a way they haven’t been able to connect before, developing a trusting relationship and when they’re ready and contemplating stopping or changing something about their drug use, those relationships are there and they can get people to treatment as soon as possible,” she said.

“I see potential benefits to the community – less needle debris around the inner city, less encounters with people who are injecting in alleys, parkways, stairwells,” she said.

The argument is a bit more personal for Petra Schulz, whose son Danny died at the age of 25 from a fentanyl overdose.

READ MORE: Alberta considers radical new approach to battling fentanyl

“For us, it is very, very important supervised injection sites are not only a way to save lives and ensure people have a chance to come towards recovery but also they help lead people towards other options,” Schulz said.

“For me, supervised consumption services, they are one piece of the puzzle in harm reduction and harm reduction is what would have saved Danny’s life. If the harm reduction measures we talk about now had been available to him, he would still be here today.”

Schulz, who plans to attend the meeting on Monday, said the city should have looked into supervised injection sites many years ago. She now wants to be the human face to this issue.

“People who die are real people. They have families. They are missed. They were loved,” she said.

READ MORE: Canada’s surging opioid crisis: ‘hodgepodge’ overdose tracking leaves true magnitude unknown

Councillor Bev Esslinger, who sits on the committee, admits that she was skeptical of supervised injection sites at first. But as she learned more about the service, saw the data and evidence, her opinion changed.

“It really seems like something we should pursue. Really we’re trying to give people support so they can work through this in their lives. If we can provide that as a community, I think it’s important for us to do so,” she said.

Esslinger said there are also advantages to the community since less drug paraphernalia would be left on the streets and supports the idea the sites would be at agencies that already exist.

“We’re just giving additional supports to them and it’s a safe place. Those are positive things in our community.”

Watch Below: An Edmonton group is pushing for approval of injection sites that would give drug users a safer location to do drugs along with support services.

Councillor Scott McKeen, who also sits on the committee, said he is in favour of the program.

“It makes sense factually on so many levels. Some people will have a moral objection. I get that. I’m not trying to change anybody’s morals or values but information might in a lot of cases.”

McKeen said there should be extensive public consultation but he does not think residents need to know which agencies may be involved.

“I don’t think we need to say exactly where they’re going. They’re healthcare facilities for God’s sake. I think IV drug addicts have privacy rights too, medical privacy rights. I also think the communities themselves deserve to be protected from the stigma, which will still be associated with these places,” he said.

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