It’s time Terrace had a safe narcotics injection site to help stem the rise in overdoses and rid public places of used needles and other drug paraphernalia litter, says the president of the Terrace Downtown Improvement Area.
A safe injection site would not be a complete solution to tackle the complex social problems of drug use but it would be a step in the right direction, says Dave Gordon.
“If a site is set up in town, then maybe it will give users a safe space to head to and that might give them an opportunity to seek recovery options in the future,” he said.
Business members of the downtown improvement area, a group financed by a special city tax, have grappled with the rise of public drug use resulting in increased ambulance and police calls to the downtown core for several years now.
The growing amount of discarded needles and other drug paraphernalia have brought on complaints by those businesses — and their customers — to city council for action to deal with the situation.
An overdose does not necessarily mean a person will die but the city recorded a troubling 112 per cent increase in overdose calls in 2020 compared to 2019. In 2020 there were 208 overdose calls to paramedics compared to 98 in 2019.
According to 2020 statistics from BC Coroners Service, Northern BC also recorded the highest illicit drug overdose death rate in the province with 40 deaths per 100,000 people.
The numbers continued to increase in 2021 based on the figures released by the BC Coroners Service on Mar. 24. Northern Health recorded the highest death rates in the province with 58 deaths per 100,000 individuals, compared to the overall rate in the province which is 38 deaths over 100,000 individuals.
A safe injection site would have professionals on hand to administer naloxone and provide other emergency first aid in the event of an overdose. Such a facility requires municipalities to first obtain an exemption from federal drug laws, and in the north, would involve the Northern Health Authority.
There is another option called an overdose prevention site which is similar to a safe injection site but which does not require a federal exemption.
Terrace mayor Carol Leclerc said that the local government has been lobbying the provincial government and Northern Health to set up an overdose prevention site in the city for a while.
“Having this type of facility would help to reduce the number of discarded needles and keep people safer. In a meeting last year, Northern Health indicated they were working on this initiative, but we have no further updates,” wrote Leclerc in the email.
The provincial mental health and addictions ministry calls overdose prevention and safe injection sites an “integral” part of B.C.’s overdose response.
“Research shows that supervised consumption sites are effective in reducing public disorder and preventing fatal overdoses, as well as increasing access to health and social services including substance use treatment,” said the ministry in an email statement.
According to the ministry’s data, there have been no overdose deaths at any supervised consumption site in B.C. and more than 6,000 (overdose) deaths have been averted since April 2016.
Northern Health’s medical health officer Dr. Rakhel Kling said that one of the reasons why there is no safe injection site here is that until recently, the northwest has never been on the overdose worry radar.
“We’re always planning and reviewing the data of where the burden of overdoses is and the recent data does show higher rates of deaths in the northwest and Terrace,” said Kling.
Northern Health does offer harm reduction measures such as free needles and a mobile mental health and substance unit and an app that lets users have access to the support they need but not a stand alone location.
When overdose calls began to increase as drug use rose in response last year to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Health did boost its services here.
Under a provincial mandate brought in because of the pandemic-caused overdose situation, trained professionals can oversee injections out in the community on a case by case basis. But that’s at a Northern Health location in Thornhill and is not a formal safe injection location.
Northern Health does not have any plans to apply for a safe injection site in Terrace but is considering an overdose prevention site of more services, said a Northern Health official.
“This planning work includes gathering information from peers around service delivery, and what they would like to see as people who use this service,” said Northern Health.
When University of British Columbia student and researcher Megan Bellamy, who is from Terrace, posed the question of the need for a safe injection site on Facebook, public opinion was divided.
While some residents welcomed the need for such services in the community – owing to fatal overdoses and a visible increase in discarded syringes at recreational and public spaces – others opposed the idea citing the cost to taxpayers.
“A lot of people in the community have a problem with drug use and it often leads to vilification of users,” said Gordon.
Editor’s note: The story has been modified to include the latest death rate figures for the Northwest released by BC Coroners Service on Mar.24.