Canada is attacking its expanding opioid crisis with an unusual measure: It is giving addicts a safe place to shoot up.
The government has already allowed seven “safe injection sites” to open and a score of others are being considered across the country.
The storefront sites give addicts clean syringes, medical supervision and freedom from arrest. They do not get help in kicking their problem unless they ask for it, but the program dramatically reduces the chance of a fatal overdose or the transmission of blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis or HIV.
The effort, inspired by some in Europe, is being closely watched in the US, where officials are struggling to cope with a surge in overdose deaths from opioid use.
Several US cities have said they are considering similar measures, despite fears that they might encourage drug use.
Dozens of people a day have been visiting three new centers in Montreal, where users are given a small kit to safely inject drugs they bring with them and then an opportunity to relax for a half-hour on couches listening to music, said a 30-year-old addict, who would only give his first name, Francois.
The operators denied access to the media once they opened.
“They give you everything you need,” Francois said as he left a center in the gentrifying downtown neighborhood around Saint Catherine Street after injecting heroin. “Everyone is pretty relaxed.”
A single injection site opened in 2003, run by a Vancouver nonprofit organization under authorization by Health Canada. It last year received 214,898 visits by 8,040 individuals, with nurses intervening in 1,781 overdoses.
It said it has never had an overdose death.
Another center has also opened in Vancouver and over the past few weeks two more have opened in British Columbia and three in Montreal. Another is scheduled to open in Montreal soon and three in Toronto.
More than a dozen other potential sites are being considered across Canada, federal officials said.
Canadian Minister of Health Jane Philpott said the government felt compelled to add sites because of the escalating number of overdose deaths, which topped 2,400 last year.
“They are absolutely known to save lives and reduce infections,” Philpott said. “We have a very significant public health issue in our country.”
She acknowledged they are not a complete answer to the drug problem.
“This is only one in a very broad range of tools. A comprehensive approach is necessary,” she said.
US drug overdose deaths have tripled in 15 years, reaching at least 52,000 in 2015, making it the leading cause of death for people under 50.
Seattle and King County in Washington state are moving forward with plans for safe injection centers, while a city task force in Philadelphia has proposed some, although such measures have faced opposition.
Former White House Office of National Drug Control Policy director John Walters said safe injection sites merely prolong addiction and eventually lead to deaths.
Walters said that overdose deaths have risen sharply in British Columbia, despite the presence of the first safe injection site in North America.
The province had 136 deaths in April, a 97 percent increase over the same month a year earlier. There were 967 overdose deaths in British Columbia last year, up from 517 in 2015, and there have already been 640 this year through May.
“Government-sanctioned injection sites are now said by advocates to prevent overdose deaths. That clearly has not happened in British Columbia,” Walters said.
Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is not convinced they work either, but said he understands their appeal.
“The opioid crisis is so horrible that you are desperate and willing to try anything,” he said. “There’s a part of me that says: ‘Sure, give it a shot.’”
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