The power of peers in the establishment of supervised injection sites

Photo credit: Dr. Peter Centre

In 2002, the Dr. Peter Centre (DPC) was the first established supervised injection site (SIS) in Canada. Since then, there have been 15,000 injections at the site and no deaths.

Vancouver Coastal Health statistics state that in British Columbia, there were 1,716 deaths from opioids in 2020. From January 1st to December 31st 2019, there were 170,731 injections by 5,111 unique individuals in supervised injection sites and no deaths.

Starting in 2018, the knowledge translation team at the DPC, headed by Patrick McDougall, held monthly teleconferences for service agencies across the country. These agencies provide life-saving supervised consumption services and overdose prevention sites (OPS) for people who use drugs.

As members of the DPC, a few of us as peers were asked to sit on the Community Advisory Committee (CAC). We met every 2 months or sometimes monthly, and we convened in a meeting room with organizations across the country. The organization’s personnel varied from nurses to people with lived experience, all with a fervour to make a difference and save lives.

At one meeting, there were police officers from the Prairies that had learned of our purpose, who then met with Vancouver Police officers. When organizations from across the country would come to Vancouver, they were escorted by the DPC staff to other supervised injection sites.

“At our board meeting when we had no visitors, we brainstormed on the aesthetics of the DPC site. We came up with a colour scheme of pastels for painting the room, wrap around pictures, and a relaxation room.”

Since the DPC is next to St. Paul’s Hospital, which has a rapid access site, they put up a trailer next to it to serve as a supervised injection site – Kitty corner from this site is a park, and I live overlooking that same park.

Most of the city’s supervised injection sites on Hastings Street in Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside (DTES) are in “the zone”, an area that is not accepted by the general public. In contrast,  Dr. Peter Centre and St. Paul’s Hospital are in the city’s coveted West End neighbourhood.

The Dr. Peter Centre’ supervised injection site is used by its members and even other members who do not inject drugs do not notice any problems. There is no violence, intimidation, or threats at the DPC, but it is not the same for the mobile trailer.

As I live next to the park, I have sat out there on a summer day and observed children playing, elders sitting, and open drug use – there has been a murder, intimidation, and break-ins.

Therefore, for supervised injection sites, location is, and should be, a priority. Supervised injection sites are necessary to fight the opioid epidemic.

“With marijuana dispensaries operating so effectively now, I feel it should be the same for opioid dispensaries.”

This would take toxic drugs off the street. Instead of criminal gangs reaping the profits of the Government, we could try and redeem the great financial cost to the public. 

There are a lot of front line workers, especially today with COVID-19, that are working tirelessly to respond to these dual health crises. In regard to the DPC, a shout-out should be given to the knowledge translation team for their leadership over the years, and their involvement with the DPC supervised injection site.

Sadly, on the Board of the CAC, we have lost one of our members to opioid overdose. The gentleman who passed was well aware of the risks, and yet he did not use a SIS. This tragedy emphasizes the importance of continuing to support harm reduction services with the voices and ideas of people with lived and living experience.

By Dan Wilson

Dan Wilson: After being sponsored by the Dr. Peter Centre and graduating from the community capacity diploma program at Simon Fraser University, Daniel worked as a Peer Research Associate on the Dr. Peter Centre study. He also worked on the Homes at Howe study with Pacific AIDS Network. He is currently on the review board at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and on the Dr. Peter Centre Community Advisory Committee.

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