Last week, on International Overdose Awareness Day, mayoral candidate Renee Sharpe announced that she is committed to supporting addictions prevention and harm reduction programs in St. John’s.
“The City does not administer healthcare, but there is still plenty the City can do to fight against the opioid crisis,” Sharpe said, “and that does not mean fighting against drug users. We need to help drug users or create circumstances where drug users are able to help themselves.”
On April 27th of this year, Eastern Health reported that there had been about 15 overdoses in the past two weeks, including at least one death.
Just last week Tree Walsh, the harm reduction manager at the Safe Works Access Program (SWAP) for the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador, told The Telegram that she believes the province’s fentanyl crisis is about to become much worse and people will continue to lose their lives unless serious changes are implemented.
Having worked as a both housing support worker and client support worker for marginalized and at risk people in Toronto has given Sharpe firsthand experience of how effective harm reduction models can be. Her platform includes a number of steps the City could be taking to prevent drug-related deaths.
“The City should partner with the province on fulfilling The Mental Health and Addiction Action Plan,” Sharpe said. “This includes adopting a harm reduction model, which does not encourage drug use, but makes users and the general population safer.”
Sharpe believes it is crucial that the City install a safe injection site, modeled after similar resources in Toronto and Vancouver.
Sharpe is not alone in thinking the city could benefit from a safe injection site, Tree Walsh also highlighted the need for a safe injection site in her conversation with The Telegram. Health Canada’s 2008 report on supervised injection sites found the sites encourage, “…users to seek counselling, detoxification, and treatment.” Health Canada also found that the sites save lives, reduce the transmission of HIV and other blood-borne viral infections, and reduced the number of people injecting in public.
The Health Canada report notes that there was “…no evidence of increases in drug-related loitering, drug dealing, or petty crime…” in areas around the supervised injection site that was used as a test case. It goes on to say that by preventing overdoses and reducing the spread of blood-borne viral infections, the sites save money.
Sharpe suggested the City could donate a storefront to be transformed into an anonymous and discreet space where people could use drugs more safely. Alternatively, the City could provide a mobile safe injection site, which would give drug users access to a healthcare provider while also distributing condoms and other harm reduction materials to sex workers, as well as sandwiches and other snacks.
“It’s the responsibility of the City of St. John’s to advocate and work tirelessly to make sure these services exist in the city” Sharpe said, “This is our community we’re speaking about, we’re talking about safety in our community.”
Sharpe would also like to see the immediate installation of the steel needle disposal units that city workers and community members have been calling for. However, she noted the boxes are reactionary, for Sharpe it is crucial that the City also work to address the roots of the opioid crisis.
For that reason Sharpe believes the City needs to help reduce stigma around drug use, so that people who choose to use drugs feel more comfortable seeking the services they need to use drugs more safely.
She would also like the City to work more closely with community organizations like SWAP and the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) who are already offering support and services to marginalized people in St. John’s. Sharpe suggested the City could publish print materials to educate people, and promote services and resources for drug users in the city.
“Drug users are just as valuable as people who chose not to use drugs, we have to be clear on this,” Sharpe said. “If someone is choosing to use drugs they deserve access to the safest possible way to do that. It is our responsibility to make this city safe for everyone.”