Skirting drug laws, Vancouver social-housing operators create consumption rooms for tenants who fear fentanyl
Two of Vancouver’s largest social-housing operators are making spaces available inside their buildings where tenants addicted to drugs can inject narcotics in an open setting and in the relative safety that comes with the presence of staff and other users.
Janice Abbott, executive director of Atira Women’s Resource Society, revealed the news this morning (January 24) at a news conference where she spoke alongside B.C.'s health minister, Terry Lake.
“We freed up space in our buildings where people who are already using alone in their rooms can come together and use together,” she said.
In a separate interview, Andy Bond, senior director of housing for the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), said his organization has a similar initiative running at a building it operates in Victoria. He told the Straight that PHS now has plans to create drug-consumption rooms in at least five of PHS’s 15 Downtown Eastside hotels as well as in two shelters.
“When staff at one of our residential buildings intervenes in an overdose, it is almost always after a significant amount of time has elapsed,” Bond explained. “That’s the time it takes for someone to come to the office, alert the staff, and then for the staff to gather the emergency kit, the oxygen, and then finally get up to that person, who may be on the fifth floor of the building. The effect of that lost time is that a person is often blue from a lack of oxygen and has a very low pulse, which can result in brain damage.”
He said that with designated consumption sites in certain buildings, the hope is that users will stop injecting in their rooms, where they might be alone, and instead use drugs where staff or another user can immediately intervene should an overdose occur.
“You really reduce the risk of brain damage in that setting,” Bond added.
He shared statistics with the Straight detailing how often PHS housing staff are having to engage in scenarios like the one he just described.
In October 2016, PHS staff working in the nonprofit’s Vancouver housing sites responded to 168 drug overdoses. In November, that number was 183. In December, it was 252.
Vancouver’s supervised-injection facility, Insite, requires an exemption from federal drug laws to operate legally. That’s made it difficult for other jurisdictions to open facilities similar to Insite, in part because the former Conservative government made that exemption nearly impossible for cities to obtain. The Liberal government has said it is loosening requirements but that revising legislation could take several months.
On December 8, the B.C. government announced it was opening “overdose-prevention sites” across the province, where drug users can inject heroin and cocaine in locations where support staff are available should someone suffer an overdose. The government argues that these sites do not require exemptions from federal drug laws because they do not employ registered health-care professionals and because they operate differently from supervised-injection sites in other ways.
At today’s news conference, B.C. health minister Terry Lake spoke in support of the Atira and PHS efforts to open similar sites inside their social-housing buildings.
“Are we skirting federal law?” he asked. “You could make that argument, I guess. But we weren’t prepared to wait for [federal] changes to save lives.
Abbott said that Atira staff are engaging in almost a dozen overdose reversals every day.
“We’ve lost 11 women [Atira tenants] in the last three months,” she added, holding back tears. “That’s more women than we’ve lost to overdose deaths in the last 10 years.
“Some of those women were women I knew well, women we all knew well….It’s tough down here right now.”
A December 2016 report by the B.C. Coroners Service alludes to the added risk that people addicted to drugs take when they use alone in their rooms.
It states that of 914 overdose deaths recorded across the province in 2016, 89.9 percent of them occurred indoors compared to 9.2 percent outside. The document notes there was not a single death at Insite or at any of the province’s more than 15 new overdose-prevention sites.
Since 2012, the number of fatal overdoses in B.C. has increased, from 273 to 330 in 2013, 366 in 2014, 510 in 2015, and now 914 in 2016. Last year the synthetic opioid fentanyl was detected in 60 percent of fatal overdoses.
Earlier during the news conference, Abbott suggested that legal drugs supplied by the government should be made a greater component of the province’s response to the fentanyl crisis.
“Having access to clean drugs for people will absolutely help curb this epidemic,” she said. “It’s probably not the only thing but it is something that will help.”
Lake has long spoken in support of prescription heroin for select patients who struggle with severe addictions to opioids. Heroin-assisted treatment—or heroin maintenance, as it’s called—is only available at one clinic located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Lake said there are no plans underway to expand access to diacetylmorphine, as prescription heroin is also known. But he emphasized that the provincial government is exploring that option.
“Should we be doing more prescription-heroin treatment, for instance, making sure that people who are addicted to drugs get, as was mentioned [by Abbott], clean drugs, expanding the different types of opioid agonist treatments that are available?” Lake asked. “I think these are very active and necessary discussions to have.”
The minister was in the Downtown Eastside to announce provincial funding for 38 substance-use treatment beds for women that Atira will operate. The beds are being made available as part of a provincial commitment to make 500 new spaces available for addictions treatment by the end of March 2017.