After a very public six-month battle, drug users in Ottawa will continue to receive glass pipes that reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C thanks to the province of Ontario.
The two-year-old initiative was canned by city council Jul 11, 2007 after some councillors said there wasn’t evidence that the pipe program stemmed the spread of blood-borne diseases.
But the City of Ottawa-funded research of University of Ottawa professor Lynn Leonard, released Oct 2006, found that drug users were switching from injection drug use to pipe-smoking and from sharing equipment to using their own — two ways of reducing infections.
The program, which received funding starting Jan 1, will be run by the Somerset West Community Health Centre, says Jack McCarthy, the centre’s director.
“This is precedent setting,” says McCarthy. “If we can fight and get safer inhalation in Ottawa, then we can get it across the province where it’s needed.
“Chalk one for harm reduction.”
The pipe program puts health professionals in contact with the city’s crack users, allowing them to make referrals to other social services, says McCarthy. But for those who aren’t ready or don’t want to quit, the program saves lives, he says.
“It’s important [so that] when you get off drugs, if you do, you don’t have HIV or hep C,” he says.
The AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO) became a vocal proponent of the program when it became threatened in 2007. Adam Graham is the Gay Men’s Prevention Coordinator for ACO.
“I think the province stepping up to support a program that’s proven to reduce the spread of infectious diseases is fantastic,” says Graham.
Over the last 12 months, ACO rolled out an ambitious public awareness campaign that included panel discussions and rallies to help raise awareness about the benefits of harm reduction as part of Ottawa’s drug strategy.
“I don’t want to sound like a broken record. We all know that the evidence is there to support harm reduction,” he says.
The province will spend $287,000 on the program. That pays for two employees, supplies and a mobile station run from a van. It’s roughly comparable to what was funded by a combination of city and provincial dollars until July, says McCarthy.
Mayor Larry O’Brien sent a strongly worded letter to MPP Jim Watson, Ottawa’s most senior cabinet minister in Ontario other than Premier Dalton McGuinty.
“I wanted to express my disappointment,” the letter reads, “with your government’s decision after Ottawa City Council overwhelmingly decided last July to cancel this program. Most distressing to me is that it appears this decision was taken without consultation with council or staff of the City of Ottawa.”
Watson has not responded.
McCarthy doesn’t see it as a slight to the city, since the chief medical officer of health, David Salisbury, city staff, some councillors and front line workers agree with the program. Somerset West did not approach council when it applied for funding, says McCarthy, but neither did council approach Somerset West or other service providers before cancelling their share of the funding.
Meanwhile, Graham points out that it is “incumbent” on both the city and the province to keep residents healthy. After the program was cancelled in July, he publicly mused about filing a human rights complaint against the city under “disability”, a category that includes people with addictions.