Alberta cities “absolutely” need supervised injection sites, says Calgary MLA

Supervised injection sites in Alberta would “reduce the harm done to individuals and their contacts,” says Calgary MLA Dr. David Swann. (Photo: Insite, Vancouver BC.)

Do Alberta cities need supervised injection sites similar to Insite in Vancouver — places where drug users can inject in clean, safer environments?

Calgary Liberal MLA David Swann doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked.

“Absolutely,” says Swann, who worked as a physician before being elected, and recently co-chaired a committee reviewing Alberta’s addiction and mental health system.

“This is part of what’s called harm reduction. It’s not treatment, it’s not healing. It’s not all that we want, but it’s going to reduce the harm done to individuals and their contacts.”

The debate over harm reduction will likely be returning to Calgary soon, as other Canadian cities are moving in this direction.

Last week, Toronto’s medical health officer called for supervised injection sites in that city, citing myriad studies that show such sites reduce overdoses.

Similar discussions have been happening in Victoria, Montreal and Ottawa.

And the Trudeau government reiterated last week that it wants to see more supervised injection sites across Canada.

It’s a 180 from the approach of the Harper government. The Conservatives stubbornly opposed (and still oppose) supervised injection, despite the mountain of evidence showing its effectiveness.

“The scientific basis is just so strong that it can’t be ignored,” says Andrea Carter, team leader of prevention and engagement for HIV Community Link in Calgary. “Ultimately, harm reduction saves lives.”

For that reason alone, it’s worth pursuing.

Supervised injection sites also put drug users into contact with health professionals, relationships that can lead to treatment and recovery.

Calgary has gone through controversy over harm reduction in the not-too-distant past.

Alberta Health Services used to distribute clean crack pipes through its Safeworks program in the city, as a way of preventing the oral spread of HIV and Hepatitis C through dirty, broken pipes.

But in 2011, after the program was scrutinized in the media and criticized by police, the province kiboshed the practice.

The provincial Conservatives, like the feds, eyed certain harm reduction practices warily.

With the NDP in power, the political landscape has shifted significantly, sparking optimism among those who work with vulnerable populations.

“We’d be really excited to see those types of initiatives come back to our city,” says Carter.

While supervised injection sites are being considered for Edmonton, Carter says agencies here haven’t discussed it much.

Calgary has lower rates of HIV attributed to injection drug use than other parts of the province, particularly northern Alberta, she says.

But with high rates of fentanyl and crack cocaine use in Calgary, Carter suggests the city might benefit more from “safer consumption sites” — supervised places where people could consume drugs orally, for example.

“It might be about looking a little bit more broadly beyond just injection drug use,” says Carter.

As the discussion continues, hopefully Calgary can move beyond the knee-jerk moralizing that has hampered progress on harm reduction in the past.

(A version of this column originally appeared in the print edition of Metro Calgary on March 21, 2016.)

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