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Toronto Star -

Drug addictions: Toronto doctor urges city to get behind a safe injection site

Dr. Philip Berger, who has worked with addicts for two decades, says it's high time the city had one. A Toronto board of health report agrees.

By: Marc Ellison ,
Staff Reporter

Jul 02 2013 - A Toronto doctor claims drug addicts he has treated would have benefited from a safe injection site in Toronto, but it's too late now - most of them are dead.

Dr. Philip Berger, chief of family medicine at St. Michael's Hospital, has worked on the front lines of the city's war with drug addiction for more than 20 years.

"I remember the wife of one of my patients was shooting up, and he accidentally killed her with an overdose," says Berger. "Had they been in a supervised injection site, she would have been resuscitated and likely lived."

A report to be reviewed by Toronto's Board of Health on July 10 supports Berger's position.

The report also found that 75 per cent of drug users interviewed would use a safe injection site - if one existed.

Dr. David McKeown, the report's author and Toronto's medical officer of health, recommends the board urge the provincial government to fund a pilot site and register its official opposition to federal Bill C-65.

The bill, introduced by federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq on June 6, outlines a long list of what McKeown called "onerous and disproportionate" criteria that must be met before an exemption can be granted.

Such an exemption was granted to Vancouver's InSite program, at least until 2008, which then prompted a legal challenge from its operators.

In September 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada not only ordered the federal health minister to grant a new exemption for InSite, but also directed her to grant such exemptions in places where there is little or no impact on public safety, and where the sites reduce death and disease.

But Councillor Gord Perks says the federal bill, which contravenes the court's ruling, is designed as a political tool and not as a tool of good governance.

"The Supreme Court's decision was very clear," he says. "This federal bill is aimed at frustrating that decision in a bid to win political points."

Perks, who is also the chair of the Toronto's Drug Strategy panel, adds that it was no surprise that, the same day the bill was introduced, propaganda was disseminated to ridings across Canada warning citizens about the dangers of heroin flooding into their communities.

Russ Maynard, program director for Vancouver's InSite program in the city's downtown eastside, says such sites actually have a stabilizing effect on neighbourhoods.

"Since InSite has been operating in 2003, we've seen a 30 per cent decrease in overdoses," he said. "In addition, 450 people a year go straight from InSite into pajamas and slippers at a treatment and detox centre."

Maynard adds that, over time, Vancouver police have seen the benefits of having a safe injection site in the city.

"They've come to realize that you can't simply arrest your way out of these problems."

"Police Chief Bill Blair's job is public safety, and he has visited a number of these sites around the world," added Pugash. "And so he has significant knowledge about the damage these sites can have on neighbourhoods."

Berger said he's not advocating for a site where just any drug user can come - rather it's a last resort for addicts for whom all other treatment programs have failed, where they can shoot up under professional supervision.

"It's even been demonstrated to be cost-saving," says Berger. "But this government is ideologically opposed and sees these sites as legitimizing drug use."

"It seems they're prepared to pay for their own moral view of the world, (rather) than lessen the burden on the economy."


Source: Toronto Star

"Reproduced with permission - Torstar Syndication Services"

Toronto Star

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