Business groups want rules for London needle use sites

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No locations have been chosen yet, but already two business groups are asking London to nail down the rules about where sites for drug users to inject under medical supervision can go.

In what could foreshadow a battle to come over a supervised injection site or sites, Downtown London and the Old East Village BIA are asking city politicians and staff to get ahead of the issue and work out the zoning bylaws that would govern supervised injection sites.

“We don’t want the neighbourhood stigmatizing the user that’s being helped. That’s what would happen if it was in the wrong place,” said Janette MacDonald, head of the downtown business umbrella group Downtown London.

It’s not about stereotypes or railing against the sites, MacDonald said, it’s about being practical.

So, is it the start of the same NIMBY — or, not-in-my-backyard — syndrome that raged when clinics that dispense methadone, used to reduce withdrawal symptoms and as a form of treatment for addiction to other drugs, first opened in London?

One expert is raising an eyebrow, warning against a “stigma-based response” to where intravenous drug users might go for supervised injection.

“People who use substances live in all neighbourhoods throughout our community,” said Abe Oudshoorn, a Western University professor who studied the need for methadone clinics in the city.

“So, we do want to be cautious about limits on the clinics that would prevent them from areas that make sense.”

MacDonald insists Downtown London isn’t opposed to safe injection sites.

“It’s nothing to do with NIMBYism,” said MacDonald, the organization’s chief executive and general manager.

“These are necessary facilities, but there are just certain places they shouldn’t be.”

“They shouldn’t be in close proximity to minors and high schools, nurseries and daycares and things like that,” MacDonald said.

Downtown London and the Old East Village BIA, in letters headed to city council’s planning committee Monday, are asking for the zoning rules to be crafted for supervised injection sites.

In February, following a study, downtown and Old East were the areas identified as top locations for supervised injection.

“We just want to make sure we’re out ahead of that, so when the facilities do in fact come, we’re not scrambling to say, ‘They can’t be here and they can’t be there,’ ” MacDonald said Thursday.

Oudshoorn said appropriate zoning is important, but that it would be a mistake to ban supervised injection from areas where it’s needed.

Zoning policies should relate more to the volume of people, not the kind of people, using a supervised injection site, he said. Usually such services need access to things like transit and parking.

“Whether it’s a coffee shop, a dentist office, or a safe injection facility, you wouldn’t put that in the middle of a residential neighbourhood,” he said. 

MacDonald said the push by the business groups isn’t about discrimination, but protection, including for those who’d use a supervised injection site.

“If it’s really going to work, it’s going to have to be in a place that people feel safe to go to,” she said.

The Middlesex-London Health Unit is about to start public consultation on supervised injection services. Hearing from residents about preferred locations is an important aspect, said Shaya Dhinsa, the agency’s sexual health manager.

But what if no one wants it?

“Gathering that information is the first step,” Dhinsa said. “There are always going to be people who may not want it in their area, but there are people who are definitely supportive as well.”

And there are a plethora of options, from location to number of sites to services offered. Research shows that London clients like the idea of an “integrated” site, where a supervised injection would happen near other health services or treatments. 

“Where would it be a best fit for the client?” Dhinsa said. “That’s a piece we don’t want to lose sight of.”

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