Inside Vancouver's supervised injection center for drug addicts

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by PAULA NEWTON / NBC

KING5.com

Posted on April 11, 2013 at 5:30 PM

Updated Thursday, Apr 11 at 5:40 PM

Drug addicts can shoot up legally in Vancouver, B.C., in a clinic-like setting of clean rooms, clean needles and no legal hassle. The program is designed to prevent the spread of HIV and infectious disease, as well as accidental overdoses.

Sixteen years ago, Vancouver's downtown east side had the highest rate of HIV infections in the developed world - a sad statistic that illustrates the dangers of sharing needles.

Over the last decade, things have improved for people whose daily life is controlled by their addiction, always seeking out the next fix. Kicking the habit is not a reality for everyone.

"The way in North America we deal with addiction is ridiculous. We'll look back in history and think why do we treat human beings in such a brutal way?" said one addict.

Mark Townsend is a campaigner for so-called supervised injection services, which reduce the risks of drug use and stop people from dying on the street from infections or overdoses.

"It didn't seem to us to be fair that the sentence for the scourge of addiction in someone's life was death," said Townsend.

Vancouver's drug addicts now have a unique resource. Located at 139 East Hastings Street is Insite, North America's only supervised injection center, a place to bring your drugs and use them.

This unassuming building has blown wide open the debate in Canada about addiction treatment.

Addicts feel it's a safe haven, opponents see it as condoning crime,  all funded by taxpayers at the cost of $3 million a year.

"This room is the only thousand or so square feet in the whole of North America where you can legally inject heroin or cocaine in a safe way. So in this room there are 12 booths. Addicts from the street bring the drugs that they've purchased in here. They sit in a booth, we provide clean equipment, and a nurse sits at a station to our left to observe the addicts using, and to see if they stop breathing, and start to die, that they can be revived," said Townsend.

Eight hundred people use these booths every day. The atmosphere is clinical; each spot disinfected as soon as its occupant leaves.

"Well, before this place was here, there'd just be 30, 40 people crowded in the alley doing it. And there was needles all over the place, a lot of ODs," said Townsend.

There are nurses on site to revive users who stop breathing, and even help them choose the safest vein. Many addicts stop by several times a day to shoot up. 

Insite has been opened since 2003. It operates under a constitutional exception to Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
 

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