Opioid Crisis: Action News investigates safe injection sites in Canada

Chad Pradelli Image
Thursday, July 19, 2018
Opioid Crisis: Action News Investigates safe injection sites
Opioid Crisis: Action News Investigates safe injection sites. Chad Pradelli reports during the Action News special Opioid Crisis: Finding Solutions on July 19, 2018.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Safe injection sites are places for opioid addicts to go use their drugs in a controlled environment.

There is a push to bring such sites to Philadelphia, but not everyone is on board with the idea. So Action News traveled to Toronto, Canada where safe injection sites are already up and running to get a first-hand look.

We found a mixed reaction.

There are still many hurdles before they become reality here in Philly, but they'll be largely modeled after sites in Canada.

There's no question these sites save lives and prevent disease, but their location can create concern from residents. We met Farrah Morrison in one of those sites. She was getting a fix with a clean needle inside a sterile room, all while being monitored in case of an overdose.

"You cannot use alone because you will die," she said. "You will die."

Farrah discusses battle with drugs with Action News reporter Chad Pradelli in June, 2018.

It's been nearly a year since Toronto opened its first federally approved safe injection site.

"We offer all the supplies that they'd need: tourniquet, sterile water, cookers, and then they can select the needle that most meets their needs," said Shaun Hopkins, who runs a site in the heart of Toronto's tourism district. "We intervened, so far, from August 2017, in about 170 overdoses either with Naloxone or oxygen. So you could say we've saved those lives," she said.

In Toronto, roughly 300 people died from an opioid-related overdose in 2017. Not one of those deaths happened in one of these facilities. Naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, is readily available. After a user injects, they're urged to go to an observation room.

When asked about public support for the facility, and whether it has increased or decreased, Hopkins said, "I think public support for this facility is difficult."

And this is why: Over the two days we sat outside several of Toronto's safe injection facilities, we witnessed prevalent drug use out front, drug deals, and even violence. We watched as one man harassed several people passing by on the sidewalk, even putting one in a chokehold. One guy decided to fight back and security arrived.

Christine Wittick owns the Football Factory, a bar neighboring one of the city's half-dozen operational safe injection sites. She understands the need, but feels the rights of the addicts often come before those in the community.

"We started to have drug dealers and prostitutes across the street. Crime started to escalate, neighbors have had their homes broken into, my husband has been punched in the face by a man who was very, very high in front of customers," Wittick said.

In Moss Park, we met a woman named April. Like many users, she's addicted to both crack and heroin. We found her using just a few hundred feet from a supervised injection site.

"I go and get a lot of supplies and don't stick around," she said. April admits that the site attracted more users and dealers, but said the impact is worth it to save lives.

"If you use alone, you die alone," she said. "You've got to weigh the negative with the positive. Saving a life is a lot more important that the other things that come along with it."

April discusses battle with drugs with Action News reporter Chad Pradelli in June, 2018.

Bill Coldin lives across the street from the park. He admits there was drug usage there before the facility opened last year, but says it's increased since. We asked: What would your message be to Philadelphians?

"Be careful where you put them," he said. "You are going to need increased policing around them."

He says the site in his neighborhood is not being used for its intended purpose.

"What bothers me is no one is using is the facility. And if they are using it, they are using it to socialize and talk right there," said Coldin.

Toronto City Councilor Giorgio Mammoliti is an outspoken critic of the safe injection sites. He believes the facilities should be placed in hospitals and have a greater emphasis on treatment. But Canadian health officials say you can't push addicts into treatment.

If you do, they say, addicts won't use the sites. First, they say, trust needs to be established and it's inside these walls where that will happen.

Here in Philadelphia, city leaders have been selling the public on the idea that so-called comprehensive user engagement sites will be a bridge to rehab.

"Every city is going to address this in a different way. We believe strongly in getting people in treatment is our goal, and pushing that at every step in the process," said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley.

Farley said he hopes to open a supervised injection site within the year, but says the biggest obstacles are the legal issues and whether the United States Attorney General's office will take action if one opens.

Research on the effectiveness of supervised injection sites being a path to treatment have been inconclusive. Toronto was unable to provide any statistics regarding its sites. However, the city of Vancouver's original facility, Insite, reports out of 7,300 users in 2017, just six percent accessed its detox treatment facility, and the average stay was just 11 days.

After shooting up her latest hit, Farrah Morrison said she was ready to get off drugs and connect with her three children. She's using this site as the road to that recovery, but where it ends is unclear.

"Wish me luck," she said.


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