New York City, NY

Nearly two decades later, New York City follows Vancouver’s lead

Liam Ford
Inside Insite, North America's first supervised injection site.| PHS Community Services Society

VANCOUVER, BC — New York City announced today that two overdose prevention sites, facilities where people can use drugs under medical supervision, had begun operating.

Meanwhile, north of the border and on the other side of the continent, the work of saving lives carried on as it has for the past 18 years at Insite, North America’s first sanctioned supervised drug-injection site, in Vancouver, B.C.

Insite is located half a block from Main and Hastings, the epicentre of the West Coast city’s tainted drug crisis — and the heart of the Downtown Eastside, infamously (and incorrectly) known as Canada’s poorest postal code.

Insite opened in the midst of an AIDS epidemic in 2003 after receiving an exemption from prosecution under federal drug laws from Health Canada, the department responsible for national health policy.

Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, who served from 2006–16, opposed Insite, famously saying that, “We as a government will not use taxpayers’ money to fund drug use.”

Despite his efforts to have it shut down, the Supreme Court of Canada in 2011 ruled unanimously against Harper’s government, allowing the facility to stay open.

Since 2003, staff at Insite have supervised more than 3.6 million injections and reversed 6,440 overdoses without any deaths, according to Vancouver Coastal Health, the regional health authority.

Public emergency

In 2016, the B.C. government declared a public health emergency due to a spike in overdose deaths.

It hasn’t helped.

Before the declaration, Insite staff performed 30 overdose interventions per month.

Since, they’ve been involved in eight per day.

According to VCH, in 2019 alone, Insite:

  • had 170,731 visits from 5,111 individuals
  • hosted 312 injection room visits per day
  • intervened in 1,314 overdoses
  • offered 3,158 clinical treatments
  • saw 0 overdose deaths

But the tainted drug crisis shows no signs of slowing down.

In the first nine months of 2021, it claimed 1,534 lives in B.C., according to the provincial coroner.

Which isn’t for lack of trying.

Vancouver city council, under Mayor Kennedy Stewart, applied to Health Canada in May for an exemption to federal drug law to decriminalize the simple possession of illegal drugs.

The city hopes that decriminalization will reduce stigma, allow increased access to services and supports, and mitigate the impacts of criminalization on people who use drugs, it says on its website.

The movement has support of Canadians.

Nearly 60 percent of them support the decriminalization of all illegal drugs, according to a February 2021 survey by the non-profit Angus Reid Institute.

That number is highest in B.C., with 66 percent support.

Safe supply

Meanwhile, on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, harm-reduction workers continue their tireless efforts while pushing for a safe supply of drugs.

They're aware that their city isn’t plagued by an overdose crisis, but a tainted drug crisis.

It’s a small distinction that could save countless lives.

"safe drugs means knowing what you consume. these are poisonings, not overdoses, because you can't know yr dose as you don't know what youre using. Prohibition prohibits knowledge," said Karen Ward, a community advocate and drug policy advisor for the City of Vancouver, via Twitter last week. "#SafeSupply now."

Supervised-injection sites are just one piece of the puzzle.

Considering U.S. drug policy, New York City’s harm-reduction advocates have accomplished quite a feat.

But they still have a lot of catching up to do — and much further still to go.

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