The federal government has approved the first supervised consumption site in Victoria for illicit drug users, but it will be at least a year before it opens.
“This is going to save lives and take us beyond what our overdose prevention sites are doing,” said Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical officer for Island Health. “Now they won’t be a stop-gap measure, they are a bridge.”
The site approved by Health Canada is at 941 Pandora Ave. and will be called the Pandora Community Health and Wellness Centre. It’s next to Our Place Society, which offers various services to Victoria’s vulnerable citizens.
An overdose prevention site is operating there under emergency orders as a measure to cope with the overdose crisis. That site is run from a shipping container, with two booths for injection, harm-reduction supplies, a paramedic and outreach workers on-hand.
It’s one of eight overdose prevention sites that have opened on Vancouver Island in the past year. Island Health said Thursday there have been 26,600 visits to the sites and 310 overdoses but no deaths.
“We know they work,” said Stanwick. “This is just one component we’re adding [to deal with the overdose crisis].”
The new centre will open in spring or summer 2018 after a $1.1-million renovation and include 10 consumption booths.
It will offer integrated health services, including mental-health counselling, a nursing clinic and referrals to addiction treatment programs.
Stanwick said the health authority will spend about $200,000 on equipment and $700,000 on staffing each year, with the hope of tapping into provincial funding.
Kelowna, Kamloops, Surrey and Vancouver have also had sites recently approved.
Island Health has a second application with the federal government for a site at the former Central Care Home housing building at 844 Johnson St. The building was bought by the province to house homeless people from the tent city on the courthouse lawn in 2016 and had an overdose-prevention site open last year for residents and guests. Once approved, the supervised consumption site could open immediately.
Stanwick said the residential site could be a model for other places across Vancouver Island, where services designed for big cities might not fit in small communities.
“The challenge is how do we adapt and tailor these services for different communities, especially in smaller places where stigma might affect access,” he said, noting people might feel more comfortable accessing services in clinics where it isn’t apparent they are using drugs.
Grant McKenzie, communications director for Our Place, said he’s glad to see the federally approved site and health centre move ahead but worries about the interim.
“We often have people waiting to get in here,” he said, adding he hopes the shipping container can be expanded or replaced with something bigger. “Now, if people come to the pod and it’s full, instead of waiting they will go to a dangerous area to use … we are responding to about 10 overdoses a week in the building and on the street (but no deaths).”
Jack Phillips from the Society of Illicit Drug Users works in harm reduction with Our Place. He said as long as dangerous and unregulated drugs are on the streets the overdose crisis will continue — regardless of more supervised sites.
“As long as people are using crap drugs they will overdose and continue to die,” said Phillips, who wants to see more access to opiate replacement therapies that work.
More than 1,700 people have died in B.C. from illicit drug overdoses since 2016.
Opioid crisis by the numbers
• 967 people died of drug overdoses in B.C. in 2016 (156 on the Island)
• 640 people died of drug overdoses in B.C. between January and May 2017 (96 on the Island)
• 82 per cent of the people who died from drug overdoses were men
• 90 per cent of drug overdoses occurred indoors
• There were no deaths at supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites
Overdose prevention sites on Vancouver Island
• Campbell River AIDS Vancouver Island
• Courtenay AIDS Vancouver Island
• Nanaimo Canadian Mental Health Association
• Port Alberni Shelter Society
- 919 Pandora Avenue (Our Place Society)
- 844 Johnson Street (Johnson Street Community); open to building residents only
- 713 Johnson Street (AIDS Vancouver Island)
- Rock Bay Landing, 535 Ellice St. (Victoria Cool Aid Society)
Source: Island Health