Comment: Comprehensive harm-reduction services needed

In these final days of 2015, there have been almost daily fatal overdose deaths in our communities. Over the holidays, residents of Victoria, Esquimalt, Saanich, the Western Communities and Sooke have been found dead of suspected drug overdoses.

Let’s make a resolution that by Christmas 2016, we will have comprehensive harm-reduction services throughout Greater Victoria, including supervised consumption services.

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As the Times Colonist reports how the “drug-death tally continues to climb,” we also read continual messages directed at people who use drugs to encourage safer use.

For example, Island Health issued a media release that encourages users to avoid using alone, have an overdose-response plan and have naloxone handy. The coroner also advised users not to use alone and call 911 if anyone is in medical distress.

According to coroner Barbara McLintock: “These are the same messages we put out over and over again.”

Our Place staff described their response as monitoring people who are sleeping and knocking on the doors of the showers every two minutes to make sure people are safe. And we read that police have been warning drug users about the current supply of illicit drugs.

While these repeated messages and responses are critical, they are also inadequate.

Public-health messages are not enough. There is a need for public-health services. There is an urgent need for an overdose-response plan for Greater Victoria that provides places where people can be supervised so that they are not using alone. There is a need to end the war on people who use drugs, and stop criminalizing and stigmatizing people for using illicit drugs. There is a need for cultural safety and inclusion of local indigenous people who use illicit drugs.

With hundreds of overdose deaths occurring in the province this year, I think we can agree that we can do more. Providing clean, safe supplies reduces the risks of HIV and hepatitis C but does little to reduce the risks of overdoses unless there are safe places for people who use drugs and less criminalization of drug use.

Our health authority needs to act on the message that the coroner delivers over and over again to people who use drugs — let’s establish comprehensive harm-reduction responses, including safe consumption services, in Greater Victoria in 2016.

We can no longer blame a “bad batch” of drugs for overdoses, nor can we continue to place the responsibility on users to develop their own personal safe-consumption sites in local parkades, alleys and washrooms. Messages of harm reduction from Island Health, police and the coroner are not enough — we urgently need safer sites now.

In 2015, as part of its strategic plan, the City of Victoria initiated a collaboration among Island Health, the Victoria Police Department, Yes to Supervised Consumption Services (YES2SCS) and the City of Victoria to create supervised consumption services embedded in a continuum of health care services, including harm reduction. All of the collaborators have agreed to the process and are waiting for the city to begin.

YES2SCS includes people who use drugs who are prepared to be engaged in the process and eager to be involved. Success will require public health spending and public support for services in the region.

We can no longer put the responsibility for harm reduction on vulnerable people in risky environments. We urgently need a renewed public-health response with vocal public support and meaningful engagement of people who use drugs in the process and the solutions.

Bruce Wallace is a member of YES2SCS and an assistant professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Social Work.

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