The British Medical journal the Lancet has released a study showing that overdose deaths from illicit drugs in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside fell 35 percent after InSite, a safe-injection facility, went into operation. The study results may help buttress the case for keeping the facility open, which will be heard before Canada’s Supreme Court on May 12.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS compared about 300 case reports from the British Columbia Coroners Service, documenting all 300 of Vancouver’s illegal-drug overdose deaths between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2005, UBC said in a press release. It was the first study to assess the impact of supervised injection sites on overdose mortality, UBC said.
Of 290 people deceased, 229 (80 percent) were male, the Lancet said in its abstract. The median age was 40 years. Eight-nine of the deaths, or 31 percent, occurred in city blocks within 500 meters of the safe-injection facility, the Lancet said. The fatal overdose rate in that area dropped by 35 percent once InSite opened, the abstract said. In contrast the death rate elsewhere in the city dropped only 9.3 percent in the same time period.
“This study provides the first unequivocal scientific evidence of the benefits of supervised injection facilities and clearly demonstrates that facilities such as InSite are saving lives and playing a vital role in reducing the harms associated with illicit drug use,” study co-author Julio Montaner, director of the Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Chair of AIDS Research at the UBC Faculty of Medicine, said in the university’s statement.
“Research results clearly show facilities such as InSite could literally be the difference between life and death for many people,” said senior author Thomas Kerr, an associate professor at UBC and co-director of the Urban Health Research Initiative (URBC), a program of the AIDS research center.
This is especially good news in light of the fact that First Nation citizens, especially women, are among the highest number of drug deaths, according to research published in the journal Addiction by the URBC. The study, according to the news site Westender, reviewed coroners’ reports of all fatal overdoses in the province between 2001 and 2005—more than 900 in total.
“By looking through those files, it became apparent to us, just by skimming the data, that far too many of these people were of First Nations ancestry,” said Kerr, who also helped author that study, to Westender. “And when we actually did a rigorous evaluation, sure enough, we found that people of First Nations ancestry were about three times more likely to die of a drug-related overdose.”
Aboriginal people comprise only four percent of the general B.C. population, the Westender said, but account for 12 per cent of the province’s overdose deaths, with one in five of those deaths occurring in the Downtown Eastside.
But safe-injection sites are controversial, and InSite is the only one in North America. As André Picard reported on April 17 in the Globe and Mail, the federal government has tried to shut down InSite under the rubric that its benefits aren’t scientifically proven. And in a protracted legal battle that has become a test of wills between the provincial and federal governments, a January 2010 ruling that said that applying federal drug laws to what provincial authorities see as a medical facility “would violate IV drug users’ Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person,” Picard wrote. The case will be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada on May 12.
Read more about the science of safe injection sites here.