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

The number of new COVID-19 cases has risen sharply in Vancouver and the Fraser North region over the last week.
Chart: Tyler Olsen
CHARTS: Weekly COVID-19 case double in Fraser North health area, up 50% in Vancouver

The number of new COVID-19 cases has risen sharply in Vancouver and the Fraser North region.

BC Hockey League commissioner Chris Hebb says the league is still on track to begin regular-season play in early December. (BCHL photo)
BCHL still on track to begin regular season in December

Commish hopeful that league can “slide right into the regular season” after successful preseason

Kristjon Olson in a photo released by Surrey RCMP.
High-risk offender back in custody facing child-porn charges, Surrey Mounties say

News of Kristjon Otto Olson’s arrest is posted to Surrey RCMP’s website

tease photo
Food truck desserts from Prague ‘pop up’ at Surrey shopping mall

The Praguery offers a modern take on a traditional pastry

A overview concept drawing of the Central District and its City Plaza, Gateway and Kennedy Heights neighbourhoods included in the Mayor’s Housing Task Force for Scott Road report. (City of Delta photo)
Walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods focus of task force’s vision for Scott Road

Report by Mayor’s Housing Task Force for Scott Road was presented to Delta council on Monday

Sooke’s Paul Larouche enjoys gold panning along the Sooke River, looking for small treasures. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
VIDEO: Island man finds niche audience by gold-panning on YouTube

Paul Larouche, 29, with over 215,000 subscribers, opens up about his journey

This house at 414 Royal Ave. became notorious for its residents’ and visitors’ penchant for attracting police. It was also the site of a gruesome torture in August 2018. It was demolished in 2019. KTW
6-year sentence for Kamloops man who helped carve ‘rat’ into flesh of fellow gang member

Ricky Dennis was one of three men involved in the August 2018 attack

Among the pumpkin carvings created this year by Rick Chong of Abbotsford is this tribute to fallen officer Cont. Allan Young.
Abbotsford pumpkin carver’s creations include fallen police officer

Rick Chong carves and displays 30 pumpkins every year

An online fundraising campaign in support of the six-year-old boy, Edgar Colby, who was hit by a car on Range Road Oct. 25 has raised more than $62,000 in a day. (Submitted)
$62K raised in 1 day for boy in coma at BC Children’s after being hit by vehicle in Yukon

The boy’s aunt says the family is “very grateful” for the support they’ve received from the community

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The Excelsior 4 are set to make their second court appearance in Abbotsford on Monday (Nov. 2). (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
‘Excelsior 4’: Animal activists set to enter not guilty plea in Abbotsford hog farm case

Animal rights activists expected to plead not guilty to charges, protest for Vancouver scheduled

Dennis Cholowski shows off a Jordan 2 Retro Just Don Blue sneaker, the type of shoe only a true sneakerhead would appreciate. (Facebook photo)
VIDEO: Chilliwack Chiefs alum Dennis Cholowski shows off ‘sneakerhead’ collection

The Detroit Red Wing has been spending his NHL paycheques building up an impressive closet of shoes

Health care employees take extensive precautions when working with people infected or suspected of having COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
WorkSafeBC disallows majority of COVID-19 job injury claims

Health care, social services employees filing the most claims

Most Read