Safety First?

Cactus Supervised Injection Site Faces Continued Opposition

Photo Courtesy Cactus Montreal

The proposal to turn non-profit outreach centre Cactus Montreal into a supervised injection site has come under public scrutiny from both the City of Montreal and the Ville-Marie community.

Montreal’s Mayor Gerald Tremblay took a firm stance against the project after a public outcry from many community groups in the downtown neighbourhood where Cactus is located, including the Université de Québec a Montreal.
On Feb. 7, Tremblay gave a speech in which he said that while he welcomes the idea of a supervised injection site, only locations connected to public health and social services would be considered.

“We understand the residents’ fear of supervised injection sites because they don’t know [enough] about what the services are based on, or what the aim of the service is,” said Jean-Francois Mary, a spokesperson for Cactus.
“But we don’t understand why the politicians don’t advocate our role in explaining to [residents] that it’s actually another resource for helping out people in crisis,” he continued.

Describing itself as “an autonomous, nonprofit organization that helps persons who use illicit drugs, or those with potentially risky sexual behaviour, to reduce the risks associated with those practices while improving their quality of life,” Cactus had originally been named a potential location for a supervised injection site by Quebec Minister of Health Yves Bolduc.

The decision followed a September Supreme Court decision deemed that a similar Vancouver initiative as legal. The Insite clinic in Vancouver was established in 2003 as a place where health professionals can monitor drug users to ensure that they aren’t overdosing or causing harm to themselves or others.

Currently Cactus aims to help individuals who are at risk from unsafe sex practices and drug addiction by distributing condoms and clean drug paraphernalia. According to their website, they are also a place where at risk individuals can drop in to hang out or get warm during the winter.

The City of Montreal is petitioning the Government of Quebec to only allow supervised injection sites in health service centers, like hospitals or clinics.

Jocelyn-Ann Campbell, a member of the City of Montreal’s Executive Committee, who is responsible for Social and Community Development, spoke to The Link about why the city has a problem with supervised injection sites operating outside of health service centers.

“People will be attracted, because it’s considered legal, to go for drug injections in a community organization that is not a health service establishment,” said Campbell. “And that attracts, because it’s downtown, a lot of homeless. The problem we’re attacking is the homeless with mental health and drug abuse problems. It’s adding to a level of problems and we prefer it to be in a health institution.”

“We are not against Cactus, we are not against the service, we are against the fact that [it] is adding this other level of complexity of a social and health issue in a neighbourhood that is already deeply [and] negatively impacted by mental health and drug problems,” she said.

Community groups like Cactus and Head & Hands, an outreach center in Notre-Dame-de-Grace, are concerned that only allowing safe injection sites in health service centers will discourage at risk individuals from seeking aid.

“We find that youth come to us who, for various reasons, may not feel comfortable in various [Local Community Service Center] contexts,” said Juniper Belshaw, the spokesperson for Head & Hands. “Whether it’s because of their gender identity or sexual orientation or because they face stigmatization as a drug user. Our stance is that it’s very important to have services that address the needs of all kinds of people in Montreal.”

“People don’t want to be identified as a drug user [and] they don’t want their name to be added to a database,” agreed Mary.

Cactus receives around 35,000 visits a year from at risk members of the community. Mary estimated 95 per cent of Cactus’s visitors wouldn’t be willing to go to a hospital or clinic.

“Most of the marginalized drug users have had really bad experiences with the system in general and the health system in particular, due to prejudices and stigma.” Said Mary.

According to Campbell, this is an easily solved problem.

“That’s not really an argument we consider. A hospital or a medical facility can create an environment with lighting and create ambiance, so that’s not really an issue,” said Campbell.

More to come.