About a month ago I was by the museum in Prince Albert taking photos for my sister's wedding and I noticed four used needles lying on the ground in a small space.
It made me wonder if the needle exchange program really is working. There aren't a lot of places you can go without finding a used needle in public view. Even a couple days ago, I was working by St. Mary School and I saw three within 30 feet of the school.
Most people I talk to about this issue have often seen needles in public view. This is a matter of concern for me as HIV/AIDS cases have risen to twice the national average in Saskatchewan over the past seven years.
Seventy-five per cent of all HIV/AIDS cases in Saskatchewan are contracted from needle injections. So all these needles lying on the ground are potential risks to the general public.
Are we doing enough with this issue with regards to public safety?
Currently in Saskatchewan, there are 18 needle exchange sites that exchange approximately four million needles per year.
Only 90 per cent of these needles are safety returned to these sites, which means approximately 40,000 possibly disease-carrying needles are unaccounted for.
While the needle exchange strategy does help the users it really doesn't help the general public, just the people injecting themselves. It does help the spread of needle-related diseases like hepatitis and HIV because needles aren't being shared.
If the needle is exchanged or dropped into the needle drop box the risk of spreading the disease is nullified. If the needle is left on the street or in a higher traffic area then the risk of disease to general public is apparent.
Is 90 per cent exchange rate of needles good enough? Or should we be exploring other options?
One option is safe injection sites. Vancouver is the only city in Canada that currently has a fully functioning safe injection site where they employ nurses and counsellors or support staff.
The drugs are injected at this site and the needles are disposed of there, never reaching the streets. Their results have been fairly positive since it opened in 2003.
There hasn't been a fatal overdose yet at the site and fatal overdoses have dropped by 35 per cent in the immediate surrounding area. In 2010, their support staff made more than 5,000 referrals to health services and 458 on-site admissions with a 43 per cent completion rate. Not only are they keeping the needles off the street they are reducing the amount of drug addicts in this area.
The injection site also has strong support from the Vancouver Police Service.
There is also strong opposition for safe injection sites because tax dollars are spent to help drug users and it basically condones drug use. If injection sites were to be set up there is the morality issue because it's a place built for people using drugs that are illegal. For the most part most drug users had a choice to start taking or injecting drugs into their bodies.
Many of us had the same choices of whether to take drugs and said no. Why should the taxpayer have to foot the bill for drug users? They are valid concerns but it's the issue of public safety.
I'm not a bleeding heart who overly sympathizes with drug users and it bothers me that our health system pays out $21 million to $42 million to treat HIV patients in Saskatchewan yearly that 75 per cent reportedly comes from needles.
As a person who plans on being a father someday (next 10-20 years) I am in mild support of safe injection sites. It’s for the same reason I am for much stronger punishment for sex offenders (I will write about this soon) and stiffer sentences all around for criminals.
I want the next generation and future generations to be able to play in the park or anywhere outside without having a parent or supervisor check the ground for needles first (I know that wasn't something that was done for me as a child).
I could also do without the visual of people seeing someone injecting drugs in a public view. With the apparent success of these programs in British Columbia and the unanimous support of the Canadian Supreme Court, it's only a matter of time before there is a strong push in Saskatchewan for safe injection sites.
With what I have seen and others have told me they have seen it an option we should at least entertain. I don't believe 40,000 needles unaccounted for that are possibly on the streets is something we can consider an overwhelmingly successful program.
Layne Lysitza blogs for the Prince Albert Daily Herald at www.paherald.sk.ca