There was an article in the Toronto Star today about the possibility of a safe injection site being opened in Toronto. Toronto's Board of Health voted 6-2 Wednesday in favour of asking the province to open a safe injection site in the city. Although there is plenty of resistance to the opening of such facilities; opposition from the Conservative Government, as well as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Police Chief Bill Blair, all of which make it seem as though the proposition by the Board of Health may be destined for failure. It's not as though these facilities are commonplace; there is only one currently operating in the entire country (in all of North America actually!), which is located in Vancouver, British Columbia. This topic raises plenty of concern from many angles, but I am not looking to debate the issue here. I simply want to show my support for the opening of such a facility, share some of my personal experience with IV Drug use, and share how a safe injection site could have saved me so much sooner.
This issue is something that hits very close to home for me, since I am a recovering IV drug user (opiates) who wholly supports the use of Safe Injection Sites as an amazing harm reduction and support tool. However, I never had a safe injection site available to me while I was using. The only thing around here remotely similar was a few different Needle Exchange Programs, which are quite different, but an amazing tool available to addicts nonetheless. A Needle Exchange is exactly as it sounds, a place available to drug users that supplies clean needles and harm reduction supplies (single use sterile tubes of water, alcohol swabs, cookers, snort kits, etc) all completely free of charge. They also offer a Needle Disposal Service that disposes of used/dirty needles returned by addicts in a sharps container, which is also supplied by the Needle Exchange Program. Educational materials are also available such as information on the health risks of IV drug use, info on HIV/AIDS/Hep C/STI'S, safer injection practices and harm reduction. There is also information available about recovery, detox, rehab, relapse, treatment, methadone, and community support group access, to name a few. They do not guilt, shame or force the addict into using these support and treatment options, they are simply made available if requested. This is so important because any pressure placed on the user to 'quit' or seek treatment decreases the chance they'll come back to the exchange again, exposing them to more risk.
These clinics are absolutely wonderful in the sense that they simply meet the addict wherever they're at in their addiction or life, and they're FREE of charge! An addict is going to use regardless, and these Needle Exchanges understand that harm reduction, not guilt and shame, are crucial and important in whether or not the addict will continue to visit the exchange for supplies. Some of these Exchanges even offer to deliver full boxes of needles and supplies discretely, directly to your home if you aren't close to the area. Yea, they're hardcore about harm reduction. It's serious business!
IV drug use isn't pretty. I've seen other addicts on several occasions reach into the community needle disposal bins on the city streets, and fish out a dirty needle to use, because they didn't have a clean one available. It is not cheap to consistently purchase clean needless from the drug store when you're using 10 times a day, and any money goes straight to dope anyways. People will also often share disposable single use cookers, in turn contaminating each other's needles, or even just share the needle, because the supplies aren't there. I've heard some people joke about how getting Hep C is almost like some sort of sick rite of passage and no big deal, often even considering themselves to be 'clean' just because they don't have HIV/AIDS. It's some frightening stuff, but we can make a difference with harm reduction tools and facilities.
What these Needle Exchanges don't provide though, is the actual hands on help from a medical professional about proper needle use, safety and harm reduction. They are also often staffed by volunteers. You might think that volunteers, pamphlets and common sense are enough, but when the price you pay for error or improper needle use is an abscess, or serious disease and death, it becomes a bit more important. I learned this the hard way. I unfortunately got an abscess from stupidly using a needle that was not sterile, and oh boy, was it ever fucking terrible. Guess where? My titt. My fucking left titty. Yep. Dropped the needle on the floor just before I went to shoot it, but I did it anyways. Total jackass move. Ended up in the hospital to have the abscess cut open, flushed out and cleaned, and then packed and covered. All the while lying to the doctors, telling them how it was some freak bug bite that got infected; because the truth would have sent me into a world of hurt. Every day for the next 14 days a homecare nurse would visit me to remove and change the wound packing, clean and redress it (she got the bug bite story too). I had a hole in my boob about 2.5cm deep, 1.5 wide. And now it's a nice, ugly boob scar! Thankfully, that was the worst of it, and I managed not to contract any diseases or share needles, although many aren't as lucky.
I honestly believe if a safe injection site was in operation, not only would I have used the facility, but it probably would have prevented many of the health risks I faced, and I believe I would have sought treatment much sooner. One of the big reasons I didn't seek help sooner is because I was horribly scared. I hid this serious addiction from everyone, except my husband, a fellow addict. It was our dirty little secret (well, not so little). I was scared of people's reaction, scared for my health, scared of admitting I needed serious help, scared to detox, scared of treatment, scared of everything. I had so many questions and fears about treatment, detox, rehab, Methadone, Suboxone, etc. but no good reliable source for obtaining the information. If I asked or even dared inquire to any Doctor/Physician for help, my script would be cut off immediately and I'd go into detox without a plan in place. But I didn't have a plan in place because I couldn't ask the right people the right questions without fear of reprimand. See the problem? Sure there's the internet and some drug crisis lines, but I didn't find either of those were sufficient enough resources, and I'm certainly not alone. There's also AA/NA meetings, but I was too ashamed and scared to show my face at one.
But, once I finally lost it all and ended up homeless, I was introduced to more fellow addicts and recovering addicts who were a gold mine of information. They talked to me about different options, they could tell me the process of getting on methadone first hand, or how I can confidently speak to the doctor. I had tried going cold turkey and I couldn't do it, I couldn't handle it. But they told me I didn't have to wait, or detox, I could start methadone tomorrow and work at recovery. They gave me clinic addresses, community resources I didn't know existed, and even offered to come along for support. I was absolutely thrilled to hear I had options; for once I no longer felt as though I had a death sentence. At the same time though, I was completely floored that it took becoming homeless and part of the drug community to actually have a solid understanding of my options for treatment and the services that were available. I believe having a place to safely use with medical supervision, and interact with a healthcare provider one on one to answer any questions would have led me to seek help much sooner. Obviously this isn't the situation for everyone, and nor am I saying you need to be homeless to access effective treatment options; my point is simply that it can be extremely difficult navigating the system for community addictions help especially when someone is a using addict, and often have mental health issues present on top of that. We need MORE access and funding to addiction and harm reduction programs, and these programs need to be easily accessible.
By opening a Safe Injection Site, you are allowing the medical community to touch base with a massive number of addicts, offering them a safe place to use, teach harm reduction and safe injection strategies - all of which is done with dignity and respect. These sites are wonderful because they do not shame or guilt the addict about their drug use, which is unfortunately generally the case from the medical community. They understand addiction is not simple, and will meet the addict at whatever stage they're at. Using? Okay, let's make sure you're safe! Want help? Great, here's the all resources available!
I do understand why people are against these facilities. People often view drugs and users as scary stuff, so why allow a facility that lets them shoot dope, gives free supplies, and has no legal repercussions for the use or possession of drugs to top it all off?! Because it's safer for everyone, that's why. I'm sure you aren't happy with addicts using and leaving dirty needles in streets and public parks, or having healthcare dollars go towards treating drug related abscesses and illnesses that could be easily prevented. Addicts don't really want any of that either. So why not work together at opening a facility that will be amazingly beneficial to the addicts, but also the community by reducing harm and promoting safety? It's not so scary when you actually meet the people who need these services and hear their stories. Addicts are people too, we deserve fair access to treatment and harm reduction services without being treated like crap and shamed. These sites provide an unparalleled level of support to addicts, so before you write them off as wrong or scary, look a little deeper and you'll see a group of people who simply need access to care, support and treatment to help in the epic battle that is addiction.