Nick Hawrishok’s op-ed piece “Smart drug policies can save lives” in the April 1 edition of the Sheaf hit the head on the nail in regard to harm reduction. I would like to discuss how monumental it is that AIDS Saskatoon to proposing a safe consumption site.
In the piece, Nick stated that AIDS Saskatoon is proposing a safe injection site, when in actuality, they are proposing a safe consumption site. The difference of one word may seem like a small and insignificant detail, but it is in actually quite significant.
A safe consumption site is different than a safe injection site in that it accommodates substances to be consumed via inhalation in addition to injection. The executive director of AIDS Saskatoon has been firm on the stance that there will be no limits to what kind of drugs can be used at the site. The low barrier operation of a safe consumption site is more rigorous than a safe injection site. It requires proper ventilation and industrial fans. This is required both to keep good air quality for the people using the rooms, and for the safety of any staff that may have to respond to an emergency and enter the room. If the site is permitted, it will be the second safe consumption site in Canada. The only other one being ARCHES in Lethbridge. This in of itself is significant as Saskatchewan only recently caught up to the rest of Canada in having a safer smoking pipe distribution program.
There are important reasons why AIDS Saskatoon is proposing a safe consumption site over a safe injection site despite the costly barriers and rigorous requirements. The point of harm reduction facilities should be to make it so that people feel welcome to engage with services. The lower the barriers and more welcoming facilities are, the more likely people are to engage with services.
More specifically, smoking substances is important harm reduction for a number of reasons. It is less harmful on the lungs than injecting is on the veins. Injecting can result in abscesses, endocarditis and other health risks. Possibly most importantly, especially in Saskatchewan where HIV rates are twice the national average, it is significantly harder to transmit HIV and Hepatitis C from sharing a pipe. The two risk factors are burns to the lips and mouth sores. Burns can be prevented by using lip balm while sores can be prevented by chewing gum and staying hydrated. People accessing pipes are also encouraged not to share, similar to the protocol with syringes. Additionally, while the ultimate goal of harm reduction is not to get the person to abstinence, it is easier to reduce or completely stop use from smoking in comparison to injection.
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