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.

Just Posted

WorkBC Chilliwack officially opens doors to its new location

The local centre opened in April and since then hundreds of clients transitioned to employment

OPINION: A brief look at the present and past of Chilliwack federal elections

For those who are new to town, or just haven’t been paying attention

Missing man last seen in Chilliwack Sept. 7

Friends concerned for well-being of 44-year-old Jean Pierre Baril

Chilliwack school board to vote on whether to paint rainbow crosswalk at district office

Scheduled vote at Sept. 17 meeting comes two weeks after city hall said ‘no’ to the idea

VIDEO: Find Me My Furever Home – Mars and Jupiter at the Chilliwack SPCA

These two very social guinea pigs are up for adoption at the Chilliwack SPCA

Vancouver’s Tristan Connelly shocks the UFC world

Late replacement upsets big favourite Pereira, main event sees Gaethje stop Cerrone in round one

UVic president offers condolences after two students killed in bus crash

‘We also grieve with those closest to these members of our campus community,’ Cassels says

Coming Home: B.C. fire chief and disaster dog return from hurricane-ravaged Bahamas

The pair spent roughly one week on Great Abaco Island assisting in relief efforts

Newcomer Ferland lines up with sniper Pettersson as Vancouver Canucks camp opens

Ferland provides more depth and a scoring threat up front, Pettersson says

Intelligence official charged seemed to be ‘exemplar of discretion’: UBC professor

Professor Paul Evans says he served on Cameron Ortis’s doctoral dissertation committee

B.C. company gets licence to test psychedelic drugs for therapy treatment

Salvation Botanicals interested in manufacturing, testing and research and development

B.C. police watchdog to investigate man’s head injury during RCMP arrest

Suspect fled on a bicycle and fell off when an officer attempted to stop him

‘A real shame’: B.C. MLA says factors behind Tolko mill closing should have been caught

Kelowna-Mission MLA Steve Thomson said the industry is in bad shape across the province

Most Read