After years of lobbying for safe-injection sites, outreach workers at Cactus Montreal have opened a facility that will allow people to use intravenous drugs under medical supervision.
Drugs users began entering the site on Berger St. in downtown Montreal on Monday afternoon, injecting drugs in the presence of a nurse and staff member.
“This is an important tool to reduce deaths and avoid infections,” said Sandhia Vadlamudy, the executive director of Cactus. “We have been waiting for this for a long time.”
Health Canada has approved three supervised injection sites in Montreal, along with Canada’s first mobile unit, which circulated on Montreal streets overnight on Monday offering services to those on the margins.
Cactus is expecting to supervise between 150 and 215 injections each day and will provide users with clean needles, a quiet place to use the narcotics and on-site nurses who can intervene in the event of an overdose, Vadlamudy said.
A second safe-injection site, operated by a community organization called Dopamine, also opened in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve on Monday and can supervise about 18 injections per day. A third site will open in September in the Centre-Sud area. Once all three sites are operational, they are expected to accommodate a total of 200 to 300 drug injections per day.
Ottawa gave the go-ahead for the program to try combatting the opioid crisis that has spread across parts of North America and is particularly bad in British Columbia. According to Health Canada, the sites can help reduce overdoses and minimize the transmission of diseases and hospital visits without increasing the crime rate. Montreal is the second city in Canada to have such facilities, after Vancouver.
“Every year, there are a lot of overdoses, and the fentanyl crisis in Western Canada could hit us at any time,” Vadlamudy said. “If someone shows symptoms of an overdose, they can get adequate medical care and be kept alive.”
Drug users who walk through the door at Cactus are required to register on their first visit. They will be asked what drugs they plan to inject and will then do so in front of a nurse and an outreach worker, who will look for signs of an overdose. After the injection, users are asked to wait in a quiet room for 15 minutes before returning to the street.
The sites are also expected to reduce the dramatically increasing number of sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections — especially hepatitis C and HIV — among people who inject drugs, according to Montreal’s public health department.
The program is funded by a three-year, $12-million grant from the provincial government.
Outreach workers have been spending time on the streets trying to persuade drug users to use the service. They say the sites contribute to public safety because fewer drug users will leave needles in parks.
Many drug users have been involved in lobbying Health Canada to approve the sites and are relieved that they are finally open, Vadlamudy said.
“This is something they want because they know it will prevent deaths.”