The Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU) is leading a feasibility study to determine the need for Supervised Consumption Services in the northwest.
Released last week, the study comes in the form of an online survey to gather information from those living in northern communities about the need for Supervised Consumption Services in area municipalities, also sometimes known as safe injection sites or services in other areas. The proposed plan would see area organizations take up the responsibility of providing the supervised sites in order to help those living with addictions and connect them with other services aimed at providing healthcare and social assistance.
Gillian Lunny, Sexual Health and Harm Reduction manager at the NWHU, said one key distinction to make about what is being surveyed is that the proposed service is not in and of itself a brand new NWHU building, but rather a service that can be offered through existing community partners.
“A lot of people will think of a site, a brand new building that has to go up in your town where people will go in and use substances,” Lunny said.
“At its core it’s a service. It would be similar to, as an example, the NWHU provides immunizations; we don’t call ourselves an immunization site, it’s just one of the services we offer within our building. Supervised consumption is really a tool in a toolbox, at its very core, to help keep people alive. The main goal of these sites is to prevent opioid related deaths.”
The supervised consumption service ensures that those with addictions can make use of the facilities set up by the service provider to have a safe, clean, and most crucially, monitored location to use the substance they have previously acquired. Clean equipment is provided, and a registered healthcare provider is on hand to ensure that in the event of an overdose the individual can quickly be attended to, and thus hopefully prevent unnecessary deaths in the community. The sites are very controlled and medicalized locations, not just with access to health care for those using drugs, but also for other supportive services like food, warm clothing, counselling, housing assistance or even dental care. Overall, Lunny said the supervised sites have been shown to help those who make use of them battle and overcome their addictions.
“When people are coming in and accessing care in a way that they haven’t done before, these sites have shown to increase people’s entry into supportive services,” she said.
“There’s been so much research done on these sites. It’s similar to needle distribution, because it’s such a controversial topic. The demonstrated outcomes of these sites have been really clear across Canada and globally. There are definite benefits to the client, so they won’t die when using and can access other services, get tested for other infections, but they’ve also shown to decrease things like public injecting, they’ve shown to decrease the amount of needles and related garbage that are found on the ground as people are able to access supplies at the site and leave their supplies there. It definitely has benefits that the community can see as well. Also, when our most vulnerable have access to services and can get healthy, we, collectively as a community, get better.”
Lunny is quick to caution that supervised consumption sites are not a “magic bullet” or quick fix to the opioid epidemic that is of growing concern across the country; instead, they are just another method that municipalities and service providers have on hand to prevent death.
“It’s not a fix to addictions; what it is is a way to help keep people alive if they choose to use substances,” she explained.
“There are lots of other benefits from the sites, of course. It’s a harm reduction approach. It’s not condoning or condemning people who use substances, it’s just health care for people who do. Typically, people in the public will often think about all harm reduction approaches for people who use substances that we’re promoting drug use, that we’re enabling people who use drugs. It’s neither of those things. Everyone deserves access to the healthcare they need in Canada. It’s a human right.”
Lunny equates the services to someone who smokes cigarettes and then gets pneumonia multiple times a year or requires oxygen.
“You could use the same question there: are we enabling or promoting?” she said.
“We’re doing neither. We’re offering health care to people who need it in the way they need it.”
The feasibility study that is currently underway is only meant to determine if there is a need for supervised consumption services in the northwest. as well as what the impact of such a site would be. Lunny said that once the results are tallied they will be delivered to health leaders in area municipalities, who would then be able to use the information, in conjunction with a community partner who will host the service, to make an official application to the government for the site. Lunny said any individual health leader or municipality could determine the need isn’t present, but the NWHU is only looking to help with collecting and distributing the information from the survey.
“The issue is that the substance use we’re talking about is illegal, that’s why there has to be an application for this,” Lunny said.
“My guess is, from the public survey, is that we’re going to get some mixed feedback. Some people are going to think this is a great idea and there will be those who think more about the negative impacts potentially, that they think might come from having a site like this in town.”