A recent article in The Ottawa Citizen (Wednesday, March 5, 2008 - A4) reported that the United Nations drug control board came down hard on the Canadian Government in order to encourage it to shut down safe injection sites for drug users in Canada. Claiming that these sites 'enable illicit use,' the UN is also accusing Canada of a lack of compliance with a number of international anti-drug treaties.
Coming 'clean' is not as simple as just stopping regular injections. Drug addicts deal with serious effects of withdrawal. Within just six to eight hours of their last injection, for instance, heroin addicts will start to feel the symptoms of withdrawl, which can include tremors, panic, cramps, vomiting, insomnia, shaking, and irritability. The symptoms can be debilatating, leading to other obvious issues such as an inability to work or focus, and isolation from relationships, which are major roadblocks to quitting altogether. Moreover, in Canada, a significant portion of HIV transmission occurs through needle-sharing. In prisons, make-shift needles are made out of pens, paperclips and old syringes. These needles can be used by dozens of inmates, a hundred times each, without being cleaned at all. A drug user might also overdose. If the drugs are taken in the street, unsupervised and far from medical attention, an overdose is almost sure to be fatal.
One of the best solutions in the grand scheme of things is to reduce harm to drug users by providing safe spaces for them to inject, as well as clean, unused needles. One such program is Insite, a Supervised Injection Site located in Downtown East Side Vancouver, an area in Canada notorious for issues associated with drug use, HIV, poverty, and abuse. Being the first site of its kind in North America, Insite has been a hub of controversy over such sites, as well as a leader in the field of harm reduction.
While it is easy to say that creating spaces for drug injection encourages drug use, results are proving just the opposite. In fact, research conducted on Insite shows that it is leading to an increase in detox and addiction treatment, has reduced the number of people injecting in public spaces, is attracting the highest-risk users, has reduced needle-sharing, is disseminating information on safer injecting to at least 1/3 of its users, and has not increased the rates of relapse among former drug users or those seeking to quit nor increased the rate of drug-related crime ( source ).
Psycho-social issues are incredibly complex. There is always an entanglement of one issue into the next, and it is impossible to compartmentalize them and deal with them individually. Approaching the issues in this way will only perpetuate them. Harm Reduction may not be the ideal, but it is the most realistic approach.
Shutting the doors of drug injection sites will not put an end to illicit drug use. Instead, it will put an end to the lives of more and more users before they even have the chance to stop their dependence on drugs.