American cities look to Vancouver for overdose crisis response model

The BC Coroners Service recorded 369 overdose deaths in Vancouver last year

As an overdose crisis began taking shape in Denver, Colo., one of the places the city’s leaders looked for answers was north of the border.

Coun. Albus Brooks says he hopped on a plane to Vancouver last year before putting together a recent proposal to open what could become the first legal supervised consumption site in the United States.

“I went out there personally to meet with council members, the chief of police, community members, business folks — I interviewed them all,” he said.

Last month, Denver council approved a proposal for a two-year pilot project allowing a safe consumption site, which lets people use drugs under the supervision of staff who are trained in overdose response.

The program must win approval from the state legislature, which is now under Democratic control after the November election. Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled state Senate killed similar legislation.

Other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Philadelphia, have also expressed interest in opening supervised injection sites. California lawmakers passed a measure that would have protected workers and participants in a San Francisco pilot program from state prosecution, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it in September.

Brooks said Denver council reviewed models in hundreds of other jurisdictions and also visited Barcelona. But it took several lessons from Vancouver, including the effectiveness of free drug testing and the importance of working across sectors and with many stakeholders.

He said he was struck by the high number of overdose deaths in Vancouver, which has been the epicentre of the crisis in Canada, but also the general consensus on the importance of harm reduction as part of a continuum of care that has been harder to achieve in the United States.

READ MORE: New in-depth report sheds light on who in BC is dying of drug overdoses

The BC Coroners Service recorded 369 overdose deaths in Vancouver last year, while Denver recorded 163 drug-related deaths, according to Colorado’s vital statistics program.

“Everyone seemed to say that harm reduction models were effective and an important part of an overall strategy,” Brooks said. “That’s not understood in the United States.”

Support hasn’t been universal in Canada either. When Insite opened in Vancouver in 2003, making it the first safe consumption site in North America, some argued it would just enable addicts. And as recently as August, the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario under Premier Doug Ford announced it was halting the opening of new overdose prevention sites pending a review.

But data suggests they have been effective. According to the BC Centre on Substance Use, a systematic review of 75 peer-reviewed journal articles on safe consumption sites found that no overdose-related death was ever reported within a site involved in the studies.

A 2011 study in Vancouver also found a 35 per cent decline in overdose deaths in the area around Insite, the centre said.

While the BC Coroners Service does not collect data on “life-saving” measures, spokesman Andy Watson said he believes significantly more people would have died in the crisis if not for harm reduction services.

“We understand the death toll probably would have tripled, based on information we’ve received from other agencies,” he said.

Insite has been a popular destination for both Canadian and American politicians considering the model, with visitors also coming from nearby Seattle, said Carrie Stefanson, spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health, which co-manages the site with non-profit PHS Community Services Society.

“They come on kind of a fact-finding mission or a tour. We have people coming all the time,” she said.

READ MORE: 2,000 Canadians died of an overdose in first 6 months of the year

Sarah Blyth, who runs the Overdose Prevention Society on the city’s Downtown Eastside, said it can be overwhelming to host so many visitors. There are visits almost every other day from politicians, grassroots organizers, nurses, students and others curious about the model — from as far away as Belgium and France and as close as other B.C. cities.

“It’s a bit too much, to be honest, but at the same time it’s so important because they get to bring back education and what we’re doing to other places,” Blyth said.

“And we get to discuss how it’s helpful and answer questions about how you can do it — how it’s easy and affordable and not hard to do.”

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

90 per cent of Quesnel students return in wake of pandemic

Staff reported the numbers at the first school board meeting of the year

Northern Health working to reduce Online COVID-19 Clinic and Information Line wait times

The health authority says it’s working to add staff to increase call capacity and hours of operation

Vote now for 2020 Quesnel Business Excellence Awards

Online voting is open until Sept. 20

Tolko to sponsor annual nation-wide Orange Shirt Day art contest

The contest for students to design the 2021 shirt closes Oct. 31

New Quesnel-area community forest process moving forward

Cariboo Regional District directors heard an update at their Sept. 11 meeting

Record-breaking 165 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed in B.C. in 24-hour period

Fifty-seven people are in hospital battling the novel coronavirus

March to protect old growth, stop industrial logging coming to B.C. Legislature

Organizers say they want to give frontline communities a bigger say in nearby logging

B.C. releases details of $1.5B economic recovery plan, $660M in business tax incentives

Economic plan includes support for employers, as well as training for workers

‘Not criminally responsible’ hearing slated for man convicted of Abbotsford school stabbing

Gabriel Klein was found guilty in March of killing Letisha Reimer, 13, in 2016

B.C.’s 1st mental health and addictions minister won’t be seeking re-election

MLA Judy Darcy is the fifth cabinet minister not intending to run in the next election

Vancouver’s shuttered aquarium searching for financial solution amid pandemic

The aquarium needs about $1 million a month to cover its costs

B.C., Alberta sending nearly 300 fire personnel by Friday to help battle wildfires in Oregon

Some 230 firefighters, most from British Columbia but including a number from Alberta, will be deployed Friday

Most Read