By: Priscilla Ip

Many might be surprised to learn that Hamilton, the city that Mac students call home, is a hot spot for opioid prescriptions, overdoses and deaths.

Just last month, the city of Hamilton issued an online survey for Hamilton residents and workers about safe and supervised injection sites. This asked various questions about personal perceptions, community impacts and common concerns. I was made aware of this survey through friends on social media sites, as well as through class, and I was excited to hear that the city of Hamilton was working to address such a pressing public health concern.

Before I considered filling in the survey, I wanted to make sure that I was as informed as possible and decided to research more about the pros and cons of safe injection sites. I was surprised to find the amount of controversy surrounding this topic.

The main controversy surrounding injection sites is the misleading perspective that they encourage crime and drug use. This perception is in stark contrast with research that has proven that safe sites as a harm reduction measure can help save lives, reduce drug use and improve public safety. These safety objectives should be something that we can all support.

Part of the controversy stems from a lack of knowledge about what safe injection sites are and how they operate.

Nurses would be present at these sites where users would bring their drugs and be supplied with sterile injection needles and proper disposal methods. Not only would this reduce the rates of infections related to needle use and sharing, it would also bridge a gap between drug users and healthcare services, which could lead to greater access to care. If approved, Hamilton would be the second Canadian city to offer supervised injection sites, following Vancouver’s lead.

I was pleased to hear that the results of the survey show 84 per cent of the 1,690 respondents supported the idea of supervised injection sites in Hamilton. This is a symbol of positive change. The board of health is planning to conduct a study on the viability of local safe injection sites with a proposed partnership with a health program and institute at McMaster University. This could be the first step forward in addressing the national problem of increased opioid use and deaths related to overuse, as well as changing the public perceptions of these issues.

This issue is not only gaining local attention, but national actions are growing in number. Following a summit in Ottawa during the weekend of Nov. 19 that addressed Canada’s opioid crisis, Health Canada committed to issuing an update on its opioid action plan by February 2017. This summit also added pressure on the federal government to declare a national public health emergency.

Hamilton has among the highest number of opioid deaths in Ontario with a rate nearly double the provincial average. As McMaster students studying and living in Hamilton, we have a role to play in this community. We should educate ourselves on these issues and support actions to reduce risks and harms related to drug abuse.

Everyone is affected by the misuse of drugs in some way. You might know a friend or family member struggling with drug abuse, you might be a nursing student playing an active role in care or you might be experiencing addiction yourself. We cannot be complacent in believing drug use will always be a societal issue and that there is nothing we can do to promote health and safety.

We can’t ignore the research and reports showing not only the rise in rates of drug use, but also the escalating amount of deaths related to drug addictions. We can all be advocates to support measures that are being taken to address this national epidemic starting at a local scale, or even smaller: a university scale.

List of helpful resources:

Student Wellness Centre
Alternatives for Youth
Ontario Drug and Alcohol Helpline
SHEC

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