American cities look to Vancouver for overdose crisis response model

The BC Coroners Service recorded 369 overdose deaths in Vancouver last year

As an overdose crisis began taking shape in Denver, Colo., one of the places the city’s leaders looked for answers was north of the border.

Coun. Albus Brooks says he hopped on a plane to Vancouver last year before putting together a recent proposal to open what could become the first legal supervised consumption site in the United States.

“I went out there personally to meet with council members, the chief of police, community members, business folks — I interviewed them all,” he said.

Last month, Denver council approved a proposal for a two-year pilot project allowing a safe consumption site, which lets people use drugs under the supervision of staff who are trained in overdose response.

The program must win approval from the state legislature, which is now under Democratic control after the November election. Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled state Senate killed similar legislation.

Other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Philadelphia, have also expressed interest in opening supervised injection sites. California lawmakers passed a measure that would have protected workers and participants in a San Francisco pilot program from state prosecution, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it in September.

Brooks said Denver council reviewed models in hundreds of other jurisdictions and also visited Barcelona. But it took several lessons from Vancouver, including the effectiveness of free drug testing and the importance of working across sectors and with many stakeholders.

He said he was struck by the high number of overdose deaths in Vancouver, which has been the epicentre of the crisis in Canada, but also the general consensus on the importance of harm reduction as part of a continuum of care that has been harder to achieve in the United States.

READ MORE: New in-depth report sheds light on who in BC is dying of drug overdoses

The BC Coroners Service recorded 369 overdose deaths in Vancouver last year, while Denver recorded 163 drug-related deaths, according to Colorado’s vital statistics program.

“Everyone seemed to say that harm reduction models were effective and an important part of an overall strategy,” Brooks said. “That’s not understood in the United States.”

Support hasn’t been universal in Canada either. When Insite opened in Vancouver in 2003, making it the first safe consumption site in North America, some argued it would just enable addicts. And as recently as August, the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario under Premier Doug Ford announced it was halting the opening of new overdose prevention sites pending a review.

But data suggests they have been effective. According to the BC Centre on Substance Use, a systematic review of 75 peer-reviewed journal articles on safe consumption sites found that no overdose-related death was ever reported within a site involved in the studies.

A 2011 study in Vancouver also found a 35 per cent decline in overdose deaths in the area around Insite, the centre said.

While the BC Coroners Service does not collect data on “life-saving” measures, spokesman Andy Watson said he believes significantly more people would have died in the crisis if not for harm reduction services.

“We understand the death toll probably would have tripled, based on information we’ve received from other agencies,” he said.

Insite has been a popular destination for both Canadian and American politicians considering the model, with visitors also coming from nearby Seattle, said Carrie Stefanson, spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health, which co-manages the site with non-profit PHS Community Services Society.

“They come on kind of a fact-finding mission or a tour. We have people coming all the time,” she said.

READ MORE: 2,000 Canadians died of an overdose in first 6 months of the year

Sarah Blyth, who runs the Overdose Prevention Society on the city’s Downtown Eastside, said it can be overwhelming to host so many visitors. There are visits almost every other day from politicians, grassroots organizers, nurses, students and others curious about the model — from as far away as Belgium and France and as close as other B.C. cities.

“It’s a bit too much, to be honest, but at the same time it’s so important because they get to bring back education and what we’re doing to other places,” Blyth said.

“And we get to discuss how it’s helpful and answer questions about how you can do it — how it’s easy and affordable and not hard to do.”

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Comox Strathcona Waste Management expects to go to tender this summer for the regional organics compost facility in Campbell River. File photo/Black Press
Comox Strathcona compost site should go to tender this summer

The regional organics facility is on target to open for the fall of 2022

WestJet in flight. Black Press file photo
Two COVID exposures on WestJet flight into Comox

The BC Centre for Disease Control has posted advisories for two separate… Continue reading

Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Busy day for Campbell River fire crews

Three incidents in rapid succession keep crews on their toes

New electric buses are coming to school districts. (Submitted photo)
New electric school buses will drive North Island forward

Travel on electric school buses is smoother, quieter, and healthier than traditional diesel buses

Destroyed window at Ministry of Social Development offices in Campbell River. Photo supplied by Campbell River RCMP
Police investigating arson in downtown Campbell River

Fire set at BC Employment and Assistance Office

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

A map showing where the most number of cases were recorded from April 23 to 29. This map, revealing a breakdown of infections by neighborhood, was pulled from a data package leaked to the Vancouver Sun last week (and independently verified).
36 Abbotsford schools flagged for COVID-19 exposures in the last 2 weeks, shattering record

Clearbrook Elementary recorded an ‘exposure’ on all 11 school days

Most Read