WATCH ABOVE: Coalition of nurses and students trying to overcome politics of tackling drug addiction. Laura Stone reports.
OTTAWA – A woman sits on a cardboard box in the middle of a downtown sidewalk. She holds a needle, looks for a vein, and shoots up in broad daylight.
It’s the reality of an addict – with nowhere to go.
Kelly – who only wants his first name used – was there once.
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After he got hit by a bus, he started taking morphine. His girlfriend had used intravenous drugs, and that’s when he started injecting them himself. He started in 1995 and used for a decade, relapsing again a couple years ago.
At 43, he now takes methadone.
“I have been homeless down here and have had to use drugs on the street,” he told Global News.
“I think anybody with any sanity would rather have somewhere safe they could go, and not be disturbed by the police or other drug users.”
Such places do exist in Canada: supervised injection sites.
But they’re rare –and a group of nurses and nursing students wants to change that by making it an election issue.
Ottawa nursing professor Marilou Gagnon recently started a grassroots coalition called Nurses for Supervised Injection Sites.
Gagnon says the sites aren’t just places for people to inject drugs in a safer environment – it’s a place to get educated, and a way to link a marginalized group with treatment and health services. It can also save lives, by reducing overdoses and testing for diseases.
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“This has been a big issue for us, because we want to provide care, and we feel like so far the government has really set up roadblocks for us,” she said.
That roadblock is a new law recently passed by the Conservative government, which makes it very difficult to open a safe injection site.
The law, which stems from a Supreme Court decision, requires sites to comply with 26 specific criteria, including community and police support.
The Conservatives defend their position, saying communities deserve an equal say.
Right now, there’s only one place where an exemption to the law exists: Insite, located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Former user Sean LeBlanc, who now runs Ottawa’s Drug Users Advocacy League, says these facilities can help people.
“The good thing about every supervised injection site I’ve visited, is that there are services there, and people get linked up with them,” he said.
“It’s basically the first step in treatment for a lot of people.”
On the campaign trail, opposition parties support the nurses’ call for more safe injection sites.
“Harm reduction works,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said last week.
“The Liberal party supports evidence-based policy, and as such we support not just projects like Insite, but properly-implemented projects like it across the country.”
The NDP supports them too, but with caveats for community consultation.
“This, to us, is a public health issue. People are dying of disease and overdoses and we need to address it,” said Victoria NDP candidate Murray Rankin.
But the Conservatives stand by their law – arguing drug addicts need treatment, not safe houses.
“We cannot just willy-nilly put heroin injection sites across the country like Justin Trudeau wants,” said former health minister and Alberta Conservative candidate, Rona Ambrose.
“At the end of the day we want people to get off of drugs. Heroin destroys lives, and it kills people.”
For his part, Kelly thinks the sites could get people off drugs.
“You’d have access to nurses, involved in treatment programs or detoxes, who could help people who are sort of still injecting but want something more out of their lives.”
It’s an outcome both sides of the debate want to see – although they just can’t agree on the best way to get there.