News / Toronto

Canada's 'most famous junkie' makes case for supervised injection sites in Toronto

Plus, a leading researcher sorts through the myths and realities of supervised injection sites.

Dean Wilson was dubbed “Canada’s most famous junkie” for showing the world his drug use in the 2002 documentary Fix: The Story of an Addicted City and for his efforts to reduce overdose deaths in Vancouver.

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Dean Wilson was dubbed “Canada’s most famous junkie” for showing the world his drug use in the 2002 documentary Fix: The Story of an Addicted City and for his efforts to reduce overdose deaths in Vancouver.

The man who’s been called Canada’s “most famous junkie” has a message for Torontonians: Don’t get hysterical about supervised injection sites.

Dean Wilson was an injection drug user in Vancouver who used the supervised injection services of the Insite clinic in the Downtown Eastside. When the federal government tried to shut it down, he fought to save it. He went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2011 and won.

As Toronto considers setting up supervised injection sites, Wilson wants the city to know they can save lives.

“If you clear all the smoke and mirrors away, it’s just good medicine,” he said.

Many people went the hysteria route in 2003 when Insite opened in Vancouver, he said, but they’ve since come around. Local business owners worried about a spike in crime and increased drug use, but the opposite has happened: There is less public drug use, and there’s been no increase in crime, Wilson said.

There are also benefits the public doesn’t see: Life-long drug users get access to health care through supervised injection sites, which means they require hospitalization less often, saving the public money and improving addicts’ health, he said.

Supervised injection sites also give addicts access to help if, like Wilson, they reach a point when they don’t want to use anymore. In his mid-fifties, after decades of drug use, Wilson went to Insite and enrolled in a detox program.

He repeated the detox cycle three times before successfully kicking heroin and cocaine. It was possible, he said, because of the trust he’d developed in the supervised injection services over the years.

Reserach into supervised injection sites: Myths versus realities

An injection kit is shown at InSite, a safe injection facility in Vancouver, on May 6, 2008. Toronto is joining the growing list of Canadian cities - which includes Ottawa and Montreal - that are moving toward setting up safe-injection sites, supervised by nurses, in order to prevent overdoses.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JONATHAN HAYWARD

An injection kit is shown at InSite, a safe injection facility in Vancouver, on May 6, 2008. Toronto is joining the growing list of Canadian cities - which includes Ottawa and Montreal - that are moving toward setting up safe-injection sites, supervised by nurses, in order to prevent overdoses.

Brandon Marshall, an epidemiology professor at Rhode Island’s Brown University, has studied supervised injection sites and helped Metro sort through some of the myths and research-based realities about supervised injection sites.

Fact: Opening a supervised injection site in Vancouver saved lives.

Marshall authored a study that found overdose deaths declined dramatically in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside when a supervised injection site opened in 2003. The decline was 35 per cent in the area near the site and 9 per cent in the rest of the city.

Myth: A supervised injection facility will increase disorder or crime in a neighbourhood.

“That’s actually not what we saw in Vancouver. We saw the opposite. There were studies published by my colleagues that showed reductions in drug-related litter, like syringes, in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood after the facility opened. Crime, likewise, tends not to increase, if anything, it decreases.”

Myth: Supervised injection leads to increased injection drug use.

Vancouver-based studies showed no uptick in injection drug use when a supervised injection site opened. “The vast majority of users had been using a long time,” Marshall said.

Reality: Supervised injection sites help people stop using drugs.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found people visiting supervised sites were more likely to enter detox programs than those who didn’t. “The facilities promote entry into those services,” said Marshall.

Myth: Medical professionals shouldn’t support supervised injection sites because they’ve sworn to do no harm.

The truth is quite the opposite, Marshall said. A review of nursing policy found that it would it be against accepted policy to not provide services, such as supervised injection, that help prevent overdose and death. “It’s part of medical practice to provide these services where appropriate,” he said.