News / Winnipeg

Advocates, expert urge Manitoba to study supervised injection sites

Shelley Marshall, a clinical nurse specialist with Street Connections, calls for meaningful consultations to take place.

A file photo of naloxone

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A file photo of naloxone

Manitoba's decision-makers have a long road ahead before they can confirm whether supervised injection sites will help prevent overdoses and potentially save lives.

That’s according to Shelley Marshall, a clinical nurse specialist with Street Connections, an organization that practices harm reduction by distributing free needles and syringes to users.

This week, the federal government announced a series of legislative changes that would make it easier for supervised injection sites to open.

Marshall said there are clear benefits to opening supervised injection sites in some places like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where rates of homelessness are high and there is a density of people who use drugs out in the open. 

“In Winnipeg our situation’s a little different,” she said, explaining there is far less outdoor drug use and no distinct neighbourhood where people live, or gather, to use.

“That’s not to say supervised consumption services wouldn’t be helpful, but it doesn’t seem like one right in any particular neighbourhood is the answer because we don’t even really know the problem.”

She believes that a working group needs to be established in order to collect evidence on how people in our city use drugs before determining where—and even if—a supervised consumption site is needed.

Meaningful community consultation also requires the perspectives of drug users, who need to be asked how they feel about a supervised drug injunction site, Marshall explained.

“We don’t really have our head wrapped around the issue, let alone an intervention that will help.”

She said crystal meth is a big drug found in our city, and notes an increase in the usage of potent opioids such as fentanyl, over the past three years.

By the end of the year, Marshall anticipates the harm-reduction team will have handed out between 900,000 to 1 million needles province-wide.

And despite the recent changes by Ottawa, the province’s health minister has no plans to explore supervised injection sites.

“There is no evidence at this time that supervised injection sites would be a relevant harm reduction solution for the province and consequently, there are no plans in place to create such sites,” Amy McGuinness, a spokesperson for Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen, wrote in an email to Metro on Thursday.

James Favel, co-founder of the Bear Clan Patrol, says more needs to be done immediately.

“I think we need to do something to persuade [drug users] to be more proactive about their own safety and making these things available is a good start” he said in an interview Thursday.

That’s why Favel plans to approach the group’s board with an idea to convert a shipping container into a moveable space that could act as a supervised drug site and give others experiencing homelessness shelter from the cold.

“Lives are being lost and while people are deciding and discussing we could lose another.”

He acknowledges moving forward on such an idea without the approval of the province or health authority could carry consequences.

However, he said his primary concern is to respond to the needs of his community.

“I’m all about begging forgiveness later," he said.

Marshall wouldn’t comment on Favel’s idea, but said pop-up sites like he’s suggested do exist elsewhere in Canada.

Alex Forrest, president of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg, believes the service would see a drop in the number of overdose calls and related deaths if a supervised injection sites were to open.  

“It’s just common sense that would occur,” he said.

Still, Forrest predicts first responders would find themselves called to such sites on a regular basis.

But at least it would be a controlled environment compared to stepping inside a drug house or another location that could carry additional risks, he explained.

According to the city, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has responded to 1,675 overdoses and poisoning calls and given naloxone – an antidote to opioid overdoses—to 686 patients from Jan.1 to Dec.7, 2016.

This year represents the highest number of overdose calls and distribution of naloxone over the past five years, data shows.

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