On Second Thought, Safe Injection Site a Good Call

84

I hate to admit it, but occasionally I must face facts: I’ve been wrong in the past. Sometimes very wrong. 

On the issue of safe drug consumption sites in Saskatoon, I have been very wrong. Over a decade ago, when I was newly employed in a newsroom as a mere child in my late 20s (humour me), I produced a story that caught fire in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan.

It was about needle exchange programs — specifically, the sheer volume of needles that were being handed out, seemingly with no oversight or restrictions — to drug addicts. The notion that it was even an exchange, in the sense of trading one dirty needle for a clean one, wasn’t particularly accurate, as there was no requirement that dirty needles were procured to earn clean ones. 

It was also around this time that Saskatoon firefighters began expressing concerns, offline and on the record, about being called out to pick up dirty needles found lying on the ground, sometimes in parks and playgrounds. 

It seemed to me that if government-funded health regions were handing out the needles, there should have been some oversight to ensure they were returned, and that it wasn’t a fabulous use of firefighters’ time to have them out picking them up.

Behind the scenes, we were being pressured by cops, some of whom have since retired, to put a spotlight on the issue, because they were sick of the free needles from the exchange being used as sales inventory by some of Saskatoon’s more innovative drug dealers. 

These dealers would preload each syringe with whatever it was they were selling and sell it as one convenient and neatly-contained unit, or “rig,” as they were, and probably still are, called. One officer described for me an especially disturbing location, where a particularly enterprising and creative dealer had preloaded hundreds of rigs and stuck them into the wall. All the buyer had to do was go in, pluck one out, pay and be on his or her way.

I was as outspoken then as I am now, though I cringe to think about some of the things I said and did, without nearly enough knowledge or experience on the issues. (I also wonder if 10 years from now I’ll feel the same way about what I say and do now. Probably.)

While I still don’t necessarily believe that handing out cartons of needles at a time is the perfect solution, I’ve also grown up enough to realize that there’s no such thing.

Then my friend Ryan Meili hit me between the eyes with sound logic a few years back, when I told him I didn’t believe in safe injection sites. “Well, there are unsafe injection sites all over the place,” he replied. “So what exactly do you have against safe ones?”

What indeed, I wondered. 

After a bit more research, a bit more sparring with Meili and a bit more growing up, I came round to the notion that restricting, or attempting to restrict, drug addicts from their addiction wasn’t going to solve anything. 

In fact, it makes sense to have a clean, safe place where they can do what they’re going to do anyway with a lowered risk to the themselves and the public. While they’re at it, they can access information and services that might help them navigate or even deviate from the path they’re on. 

To surprisingly little reaction, AIDS Saskatoon announced last month that it is planning to open Saskatoon and Saskatchewan’s first safe-injection site this fall in our city’s Pleasant Hill neighbourhood. 

The location was chosen because of its proximity to services that people with substance-abuse issues and addictions are already accessing, like the Westside Community Clinic and Saskatoon Tribal Council’s health centre and needle-exchange program.

Perhaps there was much less reaction because AIDS Saskatoon was no longer proposing the site for 33rd Street, where well-connected business owners were having a meltdown over the idea. But initially, Pleasant Hill residents seemed OK with the idea, including their community association’s president, who indicated that any protests from her neighbourhood would be overcome with public education. 

It seems that time has come. The first and perhaps inevitable rumblings of protest have emerged from Pleasant Hill residents, and surprisingly, the president of the Central and Urban Metis Federation, Shirley Isbister.

“We have mothers walking their children to St. Mary’s or Pleasant Hill. We have families moving. We have seniors in the area,” said Isbister, citing the proposed consumption site’s location which is relatively close to an elementary school.

Drug use prevails in a number of areas in Saskatoon, but it’s no secret that one of the worst is Pleasant Hill, in the heart of the inner city. A safe consumption site would contain drug consumption inside and away from Isbister’s walking mothers, families and resident seniors, instead of continuing out in the open in public parks, playgrounds and on street corners. It seems strange that Isbister would protest such an effort. 

AIDS Saskatoon remains undaunted. It says it is moving forward with plans to submit its application in April for approval from Health Canada for the site. 

While the risk exists of further stigmatization of Pleasant Hill and its surrounding areas as ridden with crime, poverty and addictions, research and common sense points to it being far outweighed by the likely rewards.