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International News

Vancouver's Heroin "Fix"

April 4, 2003

In a move that angers US officials fighting drugs, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, is opening North America's first safe injection sites for heroin users. The sites are modeled after facilities in existence for more than a decade in some European countries. Health officials and politicians in Vancouver say they hope the new sites stop the spread of HIV and hepatitis C through IV drug use and curb the number of overdose deaths.

"If I thought tripling the police force would solve this problem, I would do it," said Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell. "We're dealing with addiction and disease. And prison doesn't solve either of those problems." Vancouver has one of North America's worst drug problems, with city officials estimating there are 12,000 IV drug users among the 1.3 million people in the greater Vancouver area. Ninety percent of the drug users have hepatitis C, and 40 percent have HIV/AIDS.

Phillip Owen, then Vancouver's mayor, proposed the idea of treating drug addiction as a public health issue in 2000, emphasizing harm reduction through needle exchange, methadone clinics and safe injection sites. In April 2002 the Dr. Peter Center, a publicly supported HIV/AIDS clinic, began running a safe injection site for those with HIV/AIDS, where drug addicts receive clean needles, supplies and supervision by a nurse. A Canadian government exemption allowing illicit narcotics on the center's grounds is expected by summer, after which a second site requesting exemption should also open.

Canada's Health Ministry is willing to allow the sites as "pilot projects," provided scientific research to determine their effectiveness is conducted. Similar European sites have produced mixed results.

Although 71 percent of Vancouver residents support such sites, critics, including US drug czar John Walters, warn the sites will encourage addiction and worsen the city's drug problem. Randy White, justice critic for the Canadian Alliance federal political party, said the safe injection sites result in "harm extension," and are "a magnet" for addicts looking to use drugs without fear of prosecution.

Back to other CDC news for April 4, 2003

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Adapted from:
Wall Street Journal

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.
See Also
Ask Our Expert, David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., About Substance Use and HIV
Needle Exchange & HIV/AIDS: Canada