Supervised Injection Sites in London

Report written by Sammy Roach

On April 13, 2017, the LYAC held a discussion on supervised injection sites, places where drug users are able inject drugs in a safe, clean environment with integrated support services. Supervised injection sites are a topic that comes up again and again in London, Ontario, and each time is met with public outcry. The group discussed and debated the arguments against supervised injection sites, Overall, the discussion was animated as the group shared their perceptions of what a supervised injection site could mean for London.

Who Should Read This:

  • People who live and and work in the downtown core and Old East Village
  • People who work in support services for drug users

What are supervised injection sites? What’s the controversy?

Kayley started the discussion by asking the group: What do you know about injection sites?

  • People don’t want supervised injection sites because they argue it will attract homeless people.
  • They are a hot topic right now, and we only have the one site in Canada, Insite, in Vancouver.
  • There are a lot of NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) attitudes towards supervised injection sites.

Kayley asked the group whether they thought supervised injection sites would be a good idea or a bad idea. Grace wondered if a supervised injection site would duplicate existing services, for example the Regional HIV/AIDS connection. Kayley pointed out that although there are support services in the city that offer services like needle exchanges and help with rehabilitation, these services are drug-free zones. A couple of the councillors wondered how much use the sites would receive, and others countered that there is enough of an issue in the downtown core and Old East Village to warrant having the sites.

Kayley explained that one of the arguments against supervised injection sites is that they encourage drug use. She asked the group for their thoughts on that argument.

  • Asala asked why there would be an increase when the site is not intended as a hangout and that the people using it are there trying to get help.
  • Raghad argued that people are against the idea of acknowledging there’s a drug problem because ignorance is bliss, and people don’t want to accept that we need to do something about drug issues in our city.
  • Mike felt that people opposed to the site who have this particular view on drug use see the drug problem as one of cleaning up criminals, not as one of helping people who have an illness and need to be helped. He argued that there is a lack of sympathy.
  • Meegan noted a similar attitude she found with the debate on BRT, the “the tax money doesn’t benefit me, so why should I care” attitude.

Kayley noted a similar outcry when needle boxes were being introduced, with the same concerns around promoting drug use and and attracting drug users. She said that during the LYAC park cleanup they found several needles and there were no needle boxes. Raghad recalled a spot right by the river where they found needles, clothes, a bed, and other personal belongs. It was a site used solely for drug relief, and the group only had picked up a fraction of the needles by the time it got dark.

Insite

Currently, the only supervised injection site in Canada is Insite in Vancouver. Mike noted that Stephen Harper didn’t like the idea of building the site because it cost taxes to build, but Mike argued that the money can be saved later in healthcare. When Raghad asked how long Insite has been operating, Kayley revealed that Insite was opened in 2003, much to everyone’s audible surprise. Raghad asked why there is only one site if Insite has been doing it for 14 years?

  • Mike said the Harper government probably had something to do with the fact that no further sites exist, given their lack of support for Insite.
  • Meegan reiterated an earlier idea of cities not wanting to acknowledge that there is a problem.

Where in London?

The discussion shifted to envisioning where a supervised injection site might exist in London. Kayley asked the group why only one site is being considered.  What would stop the city from having two sites?

  • Meegan noted that people would believe one is good enough, similarly to Ontario Works when they only had one area before splitting into multiple service areas.
  • Asala said the city should open one and see how it works first.
  • Asala also brought up the idea of there being some sort of mobile injection site if possible. Raghad noted that it might make make sampling easier, and Asala added that it might be less expensive than building a new site, and there might also be less of a NIMBY attitude if the site is not permanent.

On the topic of the NIMBY attitude, Kayley asked the group: why are people insecure about having it near their house?

  • Mike said that he would be fine with having a supervised injection site near his house, and he expressed frustration with the term “street culture” that gets used as a blanket for these issues rather than viewing users as people in need.
  • Meegan explained concerns the Old East Village may have in building a supervised injection site. The concerns are that  the site would cause property value would plummet, bring dangerous culture and bad name to community and that other communities will point fingers at OEV as a failed community.  Meegan pointed out that there has also been pushback in the Old East Village against the London Intercommunity Health Centre, and she noted that people do hang out outside of it and perhaps scare off business customers.
  • On the flip side of the argument, Grace wondered if keeping the sites away from residential areas would protect the users from judgment for using the site.

Downtown: Safety and Perception

Kayley asked if there was any validity in the belief that the area around a supervised injection site is less safe.

  • Raghad said yes, because there may be the off chance that someone is unstable because of their circumstances, there is a small probability something bad could happen to someone else.

Kayley noted that a main concern for downtown according to different reports is cleaning up the streets in terms of reducing drug use and the “street culture” that was discussed earlier.  She asked the group, given they are working towards this goal, would a supervised injection site help?

  • Raghad argued that sometimes when people think of cleaning up the streets, they think of arresting people left and right. A supervised injection site would help people trying to help themselves, and if it’s successful, downtown would be cleaner in that sense. She said the site would involve more users showing up rather than being swept away, so maybe it’s a different vision of cleaning up the streets
  • Meegan explained that the downtown BIA came up with idea of “Green Zones” or crime-free/street culture-free zones where people would be forced to stay out. Asala argued that that’s not solving the problem, it’s just pushing it away, and Mike asked: where are people going to go when you force them out of downtown?
  • Kayley pointed out that there is the common image of people shooting up in the street, but there are drug issues in other parts of London, such as on campus. Raghad noted that the image of a white student popping a pill elicits different reactions than drug users downtown.
  • Grace argued that the city’s job is not to educate people nor change their minds. The city is supposed to respond to the majority, and there is a need to make progress with resources downtown.

The drug issues in downtown London have many ramifications on people’s’ experiences of downtown we don’t always think about. Hassan shared his own experience of downtown, explaining that everywhere he walks downtown, people think he’s a drug dealer. Raghad shared an experience when she was walking in downtown Ottawa and police officer was following her family the entire time. Asala noted that it’s a different experience of downtown depending on who you are, adding that feels safe at home in suburbs, whereas she is more likely to be confronted when she is downtown. Raghad added that in downtown she feels very aware of her blackness and her hijab. She said she is made to feel visible, especially with the heavy police presence downtown. Mike noted that he does not encounter that same experience. While the group expressed some understanding of why there might be a higher presence downtown, particularly near the Dundas and Richmond area, there is a definite impact on how the councillors perceived their safety that varied from person to person based on different factors. In the case of a supervised injection site, Mike pointed out that with Insite police are not allowed near it and can’t hassle people using the site, so clients are able to use the site without fear of legal prosecution.

The Youth Question

Grace asked if there would be an age requirement for supervised injection sites. To give a reference point, Kayley noted that the majority of shelters are restricted to age 18 and up. Asala argued that there should be an age requirement to use the site, and Raghad countered that not having services for youth is just one more issue they cannot solve. Kayley noted that it makes supervised injection sites that much harder of a sell to the community, when saying that youth can get the services as well.  Raghad argued that if there is a large population of youth drug users, shouldn’t we provide them services? Asala felt like youth under 18 are more controllable. Hassan wondered if in those cases parents would be paying for rehab, and Mike answered that is not necessarily the case, particular for youth on the streets.

The discussion came to a close with the councillors expressing concern and sadness thinking that there could very well be a sizeable youth population addicted to injectable drugs. There are so many nuances to the issue of supervised injection sites.

Personal Stories

Meegan shared a story about a time when she had a job interview at an eatery. The eatery had a sign that explaining that no one off the street can use the washroom unless they are wearing a suit. Meegan noted the immediate stigma and assumptions this places on people based on their appearance, and ties back to common perceptions of what we assume drug users look like.

Big Question

  • How can we reshape the perception of drug users from criminals to people who are worthy of help?

Things We Still Need to Learn

  • What more information can we take from Insite? Has it brought change to Vancouver’s drug use statistics?
  • Are there other cities in Canada who have considered similar sites but continue to hesitate? What is their reasoning?
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