By Tarah Hodgkinson
Safe injection sites have been a point of contention for several years around the world. Some claim drug use is a public health concern needing harm reduction strategies, while others claim drug use is immoral and should remain criminalized.
Over the last few months, I have spoken to public safety organizations and police across Canada. These organizations cover everything from domestic violence to traffic safety, but the topic persistently arising remains illicit drug overdoses. For example, British Columbia recently announced a health crisis resulting from increases in overdose deaths, a situation experts believe results from lacing heroin or meth with intense potency additives like fentanyl.
Thousands die each year from these overdose deaths, almost 30,000 in the U.S. alone, and the numbers are getting worse. While illicit drug use is not new, public response to it seems to be changing. Communities are shifting away from punishment and looking towards harm reduction techniques.
In Canada, none is more famous than Insite, North America’s first supervised, and legally protected, injection location where clients are given clean needles to use in a safe environment. Furthermore, they are given access to a myriad of health services such as nurses and substance abuse counselors.
In spite of a raft of political attacks by anti-drug organizations, and claims of imperfect science, the overwhelming preponderance of research results to date on the Vancouver drug injection site are positive. This includes a comprehensive 2011 study in the prestigious UK medical journal, The Lancet.
HARM REDUCTION DOESN'T REPLACE COMMUNITY-BUILDING
Other harm reduction models are also emerging across the country. In Ottawa, a managed alcohol program helps chronically homeless and alcoholic individuals seek stability and avoid binge drinking. Harm reduction is an important community-building step to address drug overdoses in Canada.
However, community-building also means better investment in prevention and drug use alternatives. There is still very little investment in long term solutions such as detox and recovery services, job opportunities, community supports and wrap-around models – all demonstrated to have a significant impact.
A well-known example is Portugal. Over 15 years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Since doing so, drug use has declined and overdoses have plummeted. Portugal invested in health care, job creation and other social supports. These alternatives had a dramatic impact on drug-seeking behaviour.
The claim that there are not enough resources for this kind of harm reduction investment collapses when faced with contrary logic or evidence. The fact is it is far more expensive for the criminal justice system to tackle drug crime. Community reinvestment - the basic premise of SafeGrowth - is well worth the effort in dollars and lives.