Early this morning (July 27), a group of a half-dozen Vancouver activists set off in two cars for the so-called Surrey Strip.
On the phone while he was still on the road, Russ Maynard said the plan was to set up a “pop up” site for supervised injection. He explained they would operate a tent where people could bring illicit intravenous drugs to use under the care of people ready to intervene should an overdose occur.
“We’ve got a carload of clean, sterilized supplies,” Maynard said. “We’ll have rigs and ties and water and all that kind of thing. And we’ll supervise people. And if there is an overdose, we have Narcan [also known by its generic name naloxone].”
Shortly after Maynard's interview with the Straight, his group of six advocates for harm reduction had their site up and running on 135A Street and had seen several dozen drug users take advantage of the service by the early afternoon.
The weekend of July 15, the City of Surrey recorded 43 drug overdoses over a three-night period that usually sees an averages closer to 24. Nobody died, but that spike was just the latest rash of accidents in the midst of a summer that has seen similar waves of drug overdoses across the region.
Speaking at a press conference on July 18, officials with Fraser Health Authority, the body responsible for hospitals and clinics in Surrey, Burnaby, and most of the Lower Mainland outside of Vancouver, said that during the first six months of 2016, there were 127 fatal overdoses in the area under its jurisdiction. That number was up 30 percent from the previous year.
Maynard argued that if a supervised-injection facility like Vancouver’s Insite was open in Surrey, some of those deaths could have been avoided.
“We know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there will be overdoses and overdose deaths today,” he said. “So what we are saying with this supervised-injection service, is, ‘This is how easy it is’. It is that straightforward, it is basic CPR and some sterilized harm-reduction supplies. And that’s it. That’s all it takes.”
Sarah Blyth is a former Vancouver parks commissioner who now works for the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), the nonprofit that operates Insite and the same organization that employs Maynard.
In a separate interview, Blyth stressed that the group that set up the unsanctioned site in Surrey today acted independently of PHS.
“This is just a grassroots movement,” she said. “People who care about people and who feel the government needs to get on this.”
Blyth noted another organizer of the pop-up site was Ann Livingston, a long-time activist who opened several unsanctioned supervised-injection sites in the Downtown Eastside back in the 1990s, long before Insite opened in 2003.
Lawyers with Pivot Legal Society were also helping in Surrey today along with members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (Vandu).
At the time of writing, an official with the City of Surrey said RCMP were aware that the pop-up site was operating illegally but for now were letting it proceed without interruptions from law enforcement.
Blyth said that the goal behind today’s action was to create awareness of a need.
“By having a pop-up safe injection site today, it will show how important it is to have a site like this in Surrey,” she explained. “It’s long-term harm reduction for people who want to get off drugs eventually and it is saving lives immediately for people who might take the wrong drugs.”
On July 19, the Straight reported that Fraser Health was in discussions with Surrey and other municipalities about bringing government-sanctioned supervised-injection sites to those areas.
But on July 25, Surrey mayor Linda Hepner said she still opposes that idea, claiming that she doesn't have enough information to convince her that these facilities will help addicts get off drugs.
Hepner was unavailable before deadline. In a telephone interview, Surrey councillor Vera LeFranc told the Straight that the city was in discussions with Fraser Health but “still in the research phase”.
“There’s not much I can say about that,” she said. “But we are thrilled that Fraser Health and certainly the province are seeing overdose deaths as a health issue and not as a criminal issue.”
LeFranc said Surrey was continuing to work with Fraser Health and hoped to have an “integrated plan” drafted by this September.
“For Surrey, it has to be a made-in-Surrey solution,” she added. “We are very different from Vancouver.”