From January until October last year, 75 Hamilton residents died from opioid overdoses. That’s an increase of 80 per cent over the previous year. Hamilton’s opioid death rate is nearly double the province overall — 13.2 per 100,000 population compared to 7.4.
This is one reason, not the only one to be sure, that this city should have a supervised injection site, where addicts can safely inject drugs under the supervision of qualified staff.
Last December city council recognized this and endorsed the idea of a site in the city’s core, echoing the findings of the local board of health.
Responding to Ontario’s worsening opioid crisis, the provincial government announced funding increases to expand supervised sites and provide more overdose antidote kits. The federal government has increased its investment and relaxed rules for supervised sites. A group of Hamilton social service agencies has been vigorously pursuing a location for either a permanent site or a temporary one.
So far, they have struck out. Recently the landlord of one, the Hamilton AIDS Network, said the site couldn’t be on their property. Wesley Urban Ministries’ landlord said the same thing. Wesley’s executive director says the refusals amount to NIMBYism, which, if true, is seriously disturbing.
Supervised injection sites (SIS) work. There are nearly 100 across Europe. They have proven they can reduce transmission of blood-borne infections by providing clean needles. If someone overdoses, as so often happens with opioids like fentanyl, a first responder can quickly administer an antidote.
They also save money. According to a report in Scientific American, a study of a site in San Francisco concluded that for every dollar spent on SIS, $2.33 would be required for emergency medical, legal, policing and other interventions. The net savings, according the report: $3.5 million.
In Vancouver, fatal overdoses in the area around SIS Insite decreased 35 per cent. Research has shown people using Insite are much less likely to share needles than at unsupervised sites.
Something else happens at SIS, including Insite. People get clean. In 2015, 6,532 users visited the site. Four hundred and sixty-four were referred to addiction treatment programs, and more than half completed them.
Based on this overwhelming evidence, more and more cities are recognizing the value of having sites. Ottawa is getting one. Toronto is getting three. London and Calgary already each has one.
And Hamilton, where the drug injection problem is worse than average and the opioid crisis worse than nearly every other Ontario city? Nothing.
Time is not on our side. The provincial election is upon us, when government wheels slow to a crawl. And premier-in-waiting Doug Ford is dead set against supervised sites, either because he doesn’t agree with the mountain of evidence that supports them, or — and this is much more likely — he’s not an evidence-based kind of guy.
So where is the urgency? There is no legitimate argument against SIS in terms of harm reduction. Do they have a negative impact on the neighbourhood? Possibly. But surely that’s a lesser evil? People are dying here. Surely even Doug Ford fans and NIMBYites get that we need to act sooner than later