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Supervised drug site aims to cut overdose deaths

An orange shipping container converted into a supervised consumption site for injection drug users opens today in the courtyard at Our Place on Pandora Avenue.
Ross Nicholls will be the on-site paramedic at the supervised injection site at Our Place.

An orange shipping container converted into a supervised consumption site for injection drug users opens today in the courtyard at Our Place on Pandora Avenue.

The hope is that the new temporary and limited service helps to curb the catastrophic number of overdose deaths in Victoria. It is the first supervised consumption service to open at the end of a year of unprecedented deaths, the day after the B.C. Coroners Service announced November overdose deaths were the highest on record for the province.

Victoria is in the top three communities of overdose deaths, and Vancouver Island has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the province, with 139 so far this year and November the worst month yet with 18 deaths.

“It’s completely devastating. The numbers are devastating but sadly I’m not surprised,” said Heather Hobbs, who has worked in harm reduction with Aids Vancouver Island for 13 years. “I remember very clearly this time last year when there were a number of deaths in the community and it started to get really bad. We’ve never seen anything like this. It just keeps getting worse.”

Hobbs said that despite harm-reduction measures such as supervised consumption services and training to administer naloxone — the antidote to the powerful opioid fentanyl — part of the problem stems from years of “bad” drug policy.

“We’ve done a lot of work to treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue, but the justice system is far behind,” said Hobbs. “Systems that criminalize and punish people for having a health problem do not work. The whole attempt to keep on top of drugs and dealers is not working. We thought fentanyl was bad, now there’s carfentanil.”

Hobbs said the key is to listen to people with lived experience of drug use about what could best help them. She noted opioid replacement programs and access to different kinds of treatment options.

“Abstinence based treatment doesn’t work for everyone,” Hobbs said. “We need other options, even non-residential ones.”

Hobbs said supervised consumption services are something users have been asking for. She’s glad Victoria will now have some, but said she and others are nervous given the time of year.

“This is [social assistance] cheque week and a difficult time of year,” Hobbs said, adding many frontline workers are conflicted about taking time off over the holidays. “There’s fear. It’s typically a time when people would take a rest but they want to be there.”

At Our Place, longtime volunteer Ross Nicholls has come out of retirement to be the on-site paramedic for the new supervised consumption site. This year, there have been about 60 overdoses at Our Place and 20 in the past month. Three clients have died: one in the housing units, one at Choices Transitional Housing in View Royal and one in the washroom at the centre.

“When I heard about this opportunity, I jumped on it,” said Nicholls, who has volunteered at the homeless hub for two years and helped in many overdoses. “There’s a huge need here and I want to be part of the solution.”

Nicholls will be working at the site, which has two stations for injection-drug use, safe supplies and a reception desk, alongside staff from the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users — who will do outreach and naloxone training.

“I hope to learn a lot from them,” said Nicholls, who often becomes involved in overdose situations after someone has “gone down.” He said the new site will allow him to look for early symptoms and intervene sooner.

“This has to make a difference,” Nicholls said. “Look at the conditions where people are using: in the cold, alone, dark alleys. This is a more humane environment with immediate medical response that gives a lot more chance of survival,” he said.

The supervised consumption site will be open during regular Our Place hours until a more permanent site is opened next door. Island Health hopes to have the federal applications in by the end of the month. Communications director Grant McKenzie said the organization lost at least one monthly subscriber because of the new service and had to change their policy of not allowing drug use — though this is limited to the new site.