Harm reduction: Just the facts ma’am

Frontline workers and health professionals speak out

Almost a month after City Council killed funding for outreach workers to hand out safer drug utensils, Ottawans eager to weigh in on both sides of the debate gathered at City Hall Jul 26 to hear more on the topic.

Moderator Ron Chaplin, the chairman of the Ottawa Coalition On HIV/AIDS, spoke about how the panel was an opportunity to inform residents of Ottawa on the program’s purpose, and its impact since it was put in place in 2004.

Chaplin read a letter on behalf of former-Vancouver mayor and current Senator, Larry Campbell in support of the program. Campbell put in place a number of harm-reduction programs, such as safe-injection sites, while serving as mayor.

Dr Lynn Leonard from the University Of Ottawa presented the findings of her two-year study on the effectiveness of the city’s harm-reduction initiative.

Leonard spoke about common misconceptions surrounding the distribution of the kits, such as that the program encourages people to smoke crack.

According to Leonard, the use of crack in Ottawa “predates the implementation of the initiative.” She cited statistics outlining how the program helps addicts find safer means to manage their habit.

“Engagement in smoking crack among the injection drug users in the study increased significantly throughout the period of the evaluation,” says Leonard’s report. “Although this finding may initially appear to be a negative outcome, that providing resources encourages uptake of the behavior, a significant decline in injecting behavior was observed – evidence of transitioning from a higher risk method of drug use to one with somewhat lower risks.”

The other presenters – Wendy Muckle, the executive director for Ottawa Inner City Health, Kathleen Cummins, executive director of the AIDS Committee Of Ottawa (the organization that organized the panel, and distributed the kits prior to the program’s demise), Krista Driscoll, a 21-year-old recovering addict, and Jay Koonstra, executive director of Bruce House – supported Leonard’s scientific findings through their accounts of first-hand experiences working and living with Ottawa’s addicts.

“There’s a difference between supporting drug users and supporting drug use,” said Muckle. “And I think it’s an important distinction.”

Proponents of the crack-pipe exchange tried to nail home the message that the price tag for the program fails in comparison to the medical costs of a patient of HIV or AIDS, which is estimated at $600,000 over and above the human costs.

When the floor was opened for questions comments from the audience, support went back and forth on the issue. While the majority in attendance seemed supportive of the program, several individuals, including some neighbourhood-watch members, took to the microphone to voice concerns over facilitating drug use and the affect that has on the safety of Ottawa’s communities as a whole.


For each naysayer however, someone came forward with a first-hand account of the realities of being an addict, toting the merits of the handout and the efforts of the organizations represented on the panel.

By The Numbers:
What the University Of Ottawa study showed:

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