As Seattle considers 'safe injection' sites, how does it work in BC?

By: Joanna Small

Updated:

Seattle could become the first U.S. city to offer addicts a safe place to use drugs.

A site already exists, just a few hours north, and we had an opportunity to go inside to see how it operates.

Nearly 9 million people visit Vancouver, British Columbia, every year and see what is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

But what they don’t see are the addicts shooting up in the street. 

William Genaille is one of them. 

He was coming down from a high when we ran into him on East Hastings Street near midnight. 

He told us he’s been using heroin and crystal meth for 26 years.

There are thousands of others like him in what's considered the poorest section of Canada; Vancouver police say 5,000 drug users live around East Hastings and 15 years ago they were dying in the streets.  William almost did.

"My friend gave me mouth to mouth,” he remembers.

But now it's nurses who save him, and the overdoses happen in the only clinic in North America where he can legally shoot up—Insite.

“It's a space that allows people to come in and use drugs in a way that is safe,” clinic manager Andy Day explains.

The clinic provides free, clean supplies.

"People often go with a cooker, alcohol, need a tie for your arm, a bit of water,” Day says as he collects the items from a countertop in Insite’s injection room.

Clients take their supplies to one of 13 booths fitted with mirrors and inject themselves under the watchful eyes of health care professionals.

“We can show them techniques and how to do things but we don't inject anybody,” Day tells us.  The clinic doesn’t provide the drugs either.

Since opening in 2003 Day says the overdose death rate in the area around Insite has dropped 35 percent, and saving addicts in the clinic costs three million taxpayer dollars a year. 

Day says that's cheaper than treating them in the hospital for the drugs or diseases contracted because of the drugs.

"If you prevent two or three people a year from contracting HIV you've basically covered your costs to provide an injection site of this size,” Day tells us.

While Insite can say definitively that they've reduced the number of heroin deaths in Vancouver, they can't say if fewer people are using heroin there -- in fact it may even be more. 

They're doing a study right now but they estimate between 15 and 20 percent of the people who utilize the clinic have come to Vancouver from other parts of Canada specifically for it.

As many as 900 people visit the clinic daily, usually more than once.

"Probably about 10 times a day,” Heather, an addict waiting outside Insite says.

The booths are almost always full.

There is a free clinic on East Hastings Street—the poorest area in Canada—where drug users can inject themselves under the watchful eye of medical professionals.
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We saw people injecting on the street -- they told us because of the wait to get a booth.

"Waiting a half hour or 45 minutes is just really a long time for an addict,” William says.

Vancouver police don't arrest them; they redirect them to Insite. 

The idea is to get them connected to other social services -- detox, counseling, transitional living. 

Day says those who use Insite are 30 percent more likely to enter treatment. 

Still, he maintains that sobriety is not an option for everyone.

"I understand a lot of people have a visceral reaction -- 'how could you allow people to do this?' but the reality is that we have to get past the discomfort,” Day says.

"There's always going to be drug users, no matter what,” says Heather matter-of-factly.

"Are you interested in getting clean because they have program here?” we asked William.

“No,” he readily admits. “I’m on this for life.”

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