Ryerson specialists say safe injection site on campus could prevent fatal overdoses

The Victoria Building is next to the proposed safe injection site. (Julianne San Antonio/Ryersonian Staff)

The Victoria Building is next to the proposed safe injection site. (Julianne San Antonio/Ryersonian Staff)

Ryerson specialists in health care and social work say a controversial safe space injection site proposed for the edge of campus could help to reduce fatal overdoses.

Toronto is one step closer to launching three supervised injection sites in the city. One of the proposed sites shares a wall with the Victoria Building. The new supervised injection site (SIS) will be located in the Toronto Public Health head office at 277 Victoria St.

At a Toronto city council meeting on March 21, the Board of Health unanimously approved a motion to continue with the project. They will now begin consulting with stakeholders. Two other sites are proposed for community health centres, one in the Riverdale neighbourhood in Toronto’s east end and one near Queen Street West and Bathurst Street. According to the proposal submitted by the board, all three clinics have a long history of treating clients who inject drugs.

A number of people spoke at the meeting, including medical and social service professionals, as well as residents who have been affected by drug addiction. Natalie Kallio, a harm reduction program coordinator at the Parkdale Community Health Centre, called the war on drugs “a colossal failure” and explained that an SIS would be a different tool to help save lives.

According to documents provided by the Board of Health, a record 206 people died from drug overdoses in the city in 2013.

Lynn Lavallee, associate director of Ryerson’s social work program, specializes in research about harm reduction. She says that an SIS would have many benefits, including supplying clean needles. Lavallee says this would reduce the risk of infectious diseases among patients who inject drugs, and prevent “clusters of overdoses,” which often happen when street drugs are laced with something unexpected. Being supervised would lessen the chances of someone suffering a fatal overdose.

“The other reason I’m in favour of supervised injection sites is that nobody’s making money off someone else’s addictions,” she said. “Methadone programs are literally making a killing.” Lavallee pointed out that some pharmaceutical companies make nearly $4,000 a year off a methadone patient.

But Lavallee also cautions that the best SIS programs need to do more.

“I really think that the safe injection site should offer comprehensive care. Or at least (be) offering referrals, and having partnerships and linkages with other agencies.”

Lachlyn Habermehl, a third-year Ryerson nursing student, first heard about the SIS proposal through social media, but found herself discussing it in-depth when her professor brought it up in a psychology class last week.

“I think it’s a great approach,” she said. “I think Canada’s healthcare system has to start focusing on its resources. I think this would be a great first step, especially in a city like Toronto where there are so many addiction problems.”

Habermehl admits the opinions in class were “pretty mixed,” with some students questioning whether the service, which has operated successfully in Vancouver for a number of years, would have the same effect in Toronto.

According to the Board of Health, there is no evidence that these type of services increase crime rates, but Habermehl said some students had security concerns as well.

“It’s a huge campus. If you’re going to be bringing more people to that area — and it’s not even just that population, but more people in general — then Ryerson needs to step up its security.”

Tanya Poppleton, the manager of security and risk management at Ryerson, says that there aren’t any immediate concerns regarding student safety. She pointed out that Toronto Public Health is already operating at 277 Victoria Street with a needle exchange program, but says that Ryerson security will be working with them to find out what the program will look like and if there are any concerns that the Ryerson community need to be aware of.

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