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Forum focuses on supervised use of drugs

May 31 2012

No addict chooses to shoot up in public, according to community activist Dean Wilson, speaking with the sincerity of experience.

Wilson, 56, an ex-heroin and cocaine addict and former president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, is in Victoria to speak this evening at a community forum on the legal struggle to retain Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection site.

On a walk through downtown Victoria, Wilson, a plaintiff in last year's Insite Supreme Court case, is concerned about the lack of a fixed-site needle exchange or a supervised injection site in the capital region.

"No one wants to see someone inject drugs on a bus bench. Open drug use is a public nuisance. It scares people away from businesses," said Wilson. Sections of the Vancouver business community that were overwhelmingly opposed to Insite when it opened in 2003 are now supporters because they see the public benefits, he said.

For the drug users, Insite provides privacy and the chance to be connected to services, including detox beds and transitional housing in the same building, Wilson said.

"You don't feel good when someone looks up an alley and sees you doing that. It just shames the hell out of you," he said.

In September last year, after challenges from the federal government, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously decided to uphold Insite's exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, allowing the facility to stay open indefinitely.

One aim of the Victoria forum, to be held at the Ambrosia Conference and Event Centre, 638 Fisgard St., is to help start a community debate about possible harm-reduction solutions, said James Boxhall, AIDS Vancouver Island acting executive director.

The event will be moderated by CBC's Gregor Craigie. Speakers include Liz Evans, executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, which operates Insite, Scott Bernstein, a lawyer with PIVOT Legal Society and Kenneth Tupper, health ministry problematic substance use prevention director.

The forum is part of Community Solidarity for Harm Reduction Week, organized by a coalition of groups to mark the fourth anniversary of the closure of Victoria's fixed-site needle exchange.

The needle exchange closed after problems spilled on to Cormorant Street and suggestions of other locations drew community protests.

In 2008, after attempts by AVI and Vancouver Island Health Authority to find an alternative site failed, the needle exchange moved to mobile delivery.

AVI staff now provide daily service on foot or on bicycles and, during the evening, from a vehicle.

The system is working, but it is not ideal as it is more difficult to connect clients with services such as street nurses, Boxhall said.

Ideally, AVI would like to see a fixed needle exchange site and, ultimately, a supervised injection site in Victoria, but there is no time frame.

"It's something we would like to see happen and we're open to dialogue and communication," said Boxhall, who believes the climate has changed since 2008 and Victoria residents are now more aware of the benefits of harm reduction.

"As long as we have a deficit of services for one group in our community, there is a deficit in the health of the community as a whole," he said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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