Ottawa’s public health authority is trying to curb drug overdoses with new vending machines that will dispense clean needles and pipes — one of the first harm reduction efforts of its kind in North America.
The plan comes as the opioid crisis continues move across Canada toward eastern cities that are bracing for a similar rise in overdose deaths recorded in Alberta and British Columbia, which has declared a public health emergency over the matter.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in overdoses due to opioids, not the same as Vancouver, but we are aware that that’s possible here,” Vera Etches, Ottawa’s deputy medical officer of health, told VICE News.
She said the five vending machines are part of a pilot project that will complement existing harm reduction services and clean needle exchanges in the city that are generally open only until 4:30 PM. There’s also a mobile van that does outreach from 5 PM until midnight, but that still leaves significant gaps in time.
“People who use drugs are often reluctant to come get services face to face, and we see this as another opportunity to reach people who are absolutely disconnected,” Etches explained. The machines will also provide information on how to access other services for drug users.
Reaching as many people as possible is especially important, she said, due to the concerning rates of disease among people who use drugs in Ottawa. For example, there’s a 13 percent rate of HIV and a 70 percent rate of Hepatitis C among the city’s estimated 5,000 injection drug users.
However, Etches said only people who are registered with the public health authority will be able to access the vending machine with special tokens. She said members of the community were “concerned that others would be able to access the supplies who are not current drug users.”
The department is currently looking for suppliers to provide the machines, as well as the supplies in them, which she said will include alcohol swabs and clean water, in addition to clean needles and crack pipes. It will also include a box for people to safely dispose their used needles. The machines will not dispense the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, also known as Narcan. A number of citizens have raised concerns that naloxone has been very difficult to find there, despite provincial and federal promises to make it more widely available.
In 2014, health authorities installed vending machines in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — the nation’s hot zone for opioid overdose deaths — that provided clean crack pipes for 25 cents in an effort to help curb the spread of illnesses.
Etches pointed to other countries such as New Zealand and Australia that saw public health benefits after they implemented their own clean needle vending machines.
Other community health organizations in Ottawa have also been preparing proposals to open safe injection sites. Vancouver is the only city in Canada that has safe injection sites that have been legally sanctioned by the federal government, which for years made it cumbersome for other jurisdictions to obtain permission. Recently, the government in British Columbia bucked those rules and opened several “overdose prevention sites” instead of jumping through hoops to open the sites according to protocol.
Last month, the federal health minister proposed new legislation that would, if passed, overhaul the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to make it easier to open safe injection sites across the country.