News / Vancouver

Vancouver’s first new supervised injection site since 2003 opens

Provincial health officials push for more sites to open faster as 88% of overdose deaths occur in isolation.

Keir Macdonald, Deputy Executive Director of Lookout Society, Judy Darcy, B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, and MLA Melanie Mark tour the new injection service area at the Powell Street Getaway on the Downtown Eastside.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Keir Macdonald, Deputy Executive Director of Lookout Society, Judy Darcy, B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, and MLA Melanie Mark tour the new injection service area at the Powell Street Getaway on the Downtown Eastside.

The first new supervised injection site in Vancouver since 2003 opened Thursday in the midst of the province's overdose criss.

Starting July 28, a small room off of the reception area at Lookout Emergency Aid Society will host an estimated 200 to 300 people a day, seven days a week, 15 hours a day.

“In 1992 (this site) opened as the Living Room, now called the Powell Street Getaway, but it was called the Living Room because many of the folks in this community live in SROs in smaller-unit buildings that don’t have a living room to socialize in,” said Shayne Williams, the executive director of Lookout.

In the midst of B.C.’s deadly opioid overdose crisis, that isolation is killing people: 88 per cent of the estimated 216 deaths caused by overdose in Vancouver this year happened inside private residences. Meanwhile, no deaths have occurred at overdose prevention sites or supervised consumption sites.

While the situation for getting supervised consumption sites open is much better than during the years of the Harper government, when no sites were given the green light, the process is still cumbersome and takes too long, said Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health. (Vancouver’s two other supervised injection sites are located at Insite and the Dr. Peter Centre.)

Health Canada approved Lookout’s Powell St. site in May, but required inspections and renovations meant the new site is only able to open now.

“Health Canada knows that, (federal health) Minister Philpott is committed to making the process more nimble,” Daly said.

The only type of drug use allowed at the new site is injection, and that also needs to change, Daly said. Injecting drugs is actually the most dangerous way to consume drugs. “We are going to immediately submit a request that they expand the exemption to allow oral consumption and snorting,” she said.

Because of the bureaucratic hurdles of opening supervised sites, the B.C. government allowed overdose prevention sites to open in, starting in December 2016. Five sites now over the bare-bones service, where people can use drugs in the presence of staff or volunteers who can perform basic first aid and call 911 if someone overdoses.

Supervised injection sites offer more nursing care for conditions like infections caused by injecting drugs and referrals to other health services.

B.C.’s new minster of mental health and addictions, Judy Darcy, was also on hand to mark the opening of the site. The creation of Darcy’s separate ministry was an NDP campaign promise. But she could offer few concrete details of the NDP government’s strategy to improve access to help for people suffering from mental health and addictions issues.

“I’m talking to people on the front lines because I want to know what works, what’s been working, so we can bring forward plans to cabinet of what we need to do more of,” Darcy said.

While services like supervised injection sites are preventing people from dying, Darcy said faster access to long-term treatment is badly needed.

“There’s no question that more (funding) will be needed, how much that is we don’t know yet.”

Data from the Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Fire and Rescue shows that services like supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites are working, Daly said: the ratio of deaths to calls is lower in the Downtown Eastside, where those services are clustered, than in other parts of the city.

That may point to the need for a mobile supervised injection site. That type of service has recently been approved for Montreal and Kelowna, and represents a huge departure away from a former Health Canada focus on specific locations.

“That’s really interesting,” Daly said. “Whether there’s a need for a mobile service (in Vancouver) is something we’ll have to consider.”

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