Does Victoria need a safe injection site?

It’s a question many are asking after a string of nearly 50 overdoses including eight deaths in the Capital Region since Dec. 19.

With reports that fentanyl-laced heroin is circulating on the streets, many city councillors are strongly backing the idea of a supervised safe consumption site for local drug users.

“It’s not just science-based evidence, it’s evidence based on death,” Coun. Marianne Alto told CTV News Wednesday.

In its strategic plan, the city has pledged to work toward "establishing supervised consumption services," in collaboration with Island Health, Victoria Police and other groups.

But Alto reiterated that council can’t implement a safe consumption site alone – that decision lies with Island Health as long as it follows strict guidelines set forth by the federal government.

In 2007, the city wanted to open three facilities, but the then-Conservative government stymied their attempts.

And despite what some call a dire need for a site in Victoria, the situation today may be even tougher with the passing of the Respect for Communities Act in June.

Critics say the bill introduced dozens of new hoops to jump through before a supervised site can even be considered, despite a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2011 that ordered the government to exempt Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection clinic, from prosecution under federal law.

“One would hope that under a new government someone might be looking at all those requirements,” said Island Health spokesman Dr. Paul Hasselback. “What exactly does that take, and actually look at what communities really need, and maybe make some modifications that’ll make it easier to go forward with.”

Local advocates and addiction experts like Kristen Kvakic of AIDS Vancouver Island say many of the recent overdoses could have been prevented with a supervised injection site.

“We have a very active, illicit drug using community that has been asking for those services,” Kvakic said. “We have many service users and community members who would still be here today had a safe injection site been a health care service that they could access when they most needed it.”

The Victoria group Yes to Supervised Injection Sites says drug users can’t afford to wait any longer – and is demanding action now.

“From a pure dollar-and-cents standpoint, it will save our community a great deal of money in the long run,” he said. “Hospital visits, court costs, those sorts of things cost us a great deal of money. But besides that, there is no getting someone back once they’re dead. There is no excuse for someone to die behind a dumpster any longer.”

But Hasselback cautioned against viewing an safe injection clinic as a cure-all, and said it’s just one factor in reducing drug-related deaths and addiction.

“It’s one piece of a continuum of service on which there are many gaps that currently exist,” he said. “Rather than jumping to supervised drug consumption as a solution, we know from Vancouver it’s only a small piece of the solution.”

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, studies in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany suggest safe consumption sites help reduce risk and harm associated with intravenous drug use while also contributing to a decline in criminal activity and public health problems such as discarded syringes.