After nearly a decade fighting to help and support drug users in Montreal, harm reduction groups rejoiced Friday as the city announced it had finally received approval from Health Canada to open Quebec’s first safe injection sites.
Two local organizations, CACTUS and Dopamine, will host the facilities, which are set to be up and running within the next few weeks. The two centres will be among the first in Canada, after Vancouver’s INSITE clinic.
“We’re not in basements anymore,” said Louis Letellier, the founder and president of CACTUS, which ran North America’s first needle exchange program and spent years operating in relative obscurity.
“We’re now have daylight, we are giving dignity back to people who are using drugs.”
The announcement coincides with Montreal’s hosting of the 25th International Harm Reduction Conference, a gathering of hundreds of harm reduction experts, medical professionals and drug users from all over the world.
Safe injection sites provide drug users with clean equipment and the supervision of front line workers and medical professional, an approach proven to drastically reduce deaths by overdose and the transmission of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.
“We’re finally starting to see political obstruction peel away.”
“This is a big day for Quebec,” announced Lucie Charlebois, who heads up Quebec’s ministry of public health and healthy lifestyles. She pledged $12 million over three years to support the initiative.
Two other sites the city plans to open — one mobile unit and another at a fixed address — are still being evaluated by Health Canada, whose final approval is required. Charlebois says she is confident these facilities will also be green lit, and soon.
Vancouver’s INSITE clinic first opened its doors in 2003, and though several studies — and a 2011 Supreme Court decision— deemed its services to be lifesaving, legislation under the Harper Conservatives had long prevented the implementation of such centres in other cities.
“We’re finally starting to see political obstruction peel away,” Harm Reduction International executive director Rick Lines told VICE News. This success, he predicts, will now make it easier for other cities to open their own safe injection facilities. “Every time more sites open up with less opposition and more information and more success, it becomes less stigmatized, it becomes a more normalized intervention for comprehensive harm reduction service.”
Letellier emphasized the importance of work done by grassroots groups, who spent years trying to persuade elected officials of the value of safe injection sites. “These organizations are the voices of marginalized people and are an exceptional asset for public health authorities as well as for the communities where they are involved,” he said.
“It took us ten years to get there.”
Jean-François Mary, with the Association québécoise pour la promotion de la santé des personnes utilisatrices de drogues, said this success was bittersweet.
“It took us ten years to get there,” he said, tearing up. “Ten years during which we lost so many of our friends and members. So we don’t have the enthusiasm that we should have.”
The announcement comes on the heels of a heated debate in the House of Commons over the Liberal’s effort to modify drug laws, so that it would be easier to open supervised drug consumption sites. Senators are now trying to make three changes to Bill C-37, a tug of war that will likely slow down the passing of the law.
Cover: Photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press