Pubdate: Wed, 22 Jun 2016
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Page: A2
Copyright: 2016 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: David Reevely


Mayor Has Given Himself a Way Out, and Is Edging His Way Toward It

Mayor Jim Watson is softening his stance against supervised 
drug-injection sites following a 9-2 vote by the city's board of 
health in favour of them.

He's still opposed to such sites. But he's left himself a way out and 
he's edging toward it.

The mayor had packed his schedule Tuesday, after Monday night's 
health-board vote, and wouldn't be available to be interviewed, his 
spokeswoman Livia Belcea said. He had a statement instead.

"My personal views on safe injection sites are well known to the 
public," it said. "I would rather focus our efforts on treatment 
programs, but I understand that harm reduction, just like prevention, 
are important parts of this equation. Regardless of my views, I 
respect the role of Ottawa Public Health and of our Medical Officer 
of Health, and I believe the Board of Health is the appropriate venue 
to hold an important medical debate into this complex and city-wide 
issue. Ottawa Public Health is a community partner in harm reduction 
initiatives and should be at the table whenever community groups are 
discussing this issue with residents or other levels of government."

That Watson would "rather focus our efforts on treatment programs" 
has been his position for years, any time the notion of opening an 
injection site in Ottawa came up. The pointed declarations of respect 
for the health unit are new.

The public health unit has recently begun to champion safe injection 
sites as an add-on to needle exchanges and methadone clinics.

The sites are aimed at giving chronic drug abusers one more way into 
treatment and the promise of help to at least stay alive until 
they're ready to seek it.

Isra Levy, the health unit's top doctor, was studiously skeptical for 
years until a team of epidemiologists and other experts dived into 
the data on drug use in Ottawa.

The health board heard Monday night from Lise Girard, the director of 
mental health and addictions at the Montfort's treatment centre and 
the chair of the group that co-ordinates addictions services for 
Eastern Ontario's health authority.

The average wait to start rehab is 25 days, less than one-third of 
what it once was, and there's outpatient help and support in the 
meantime. Of course, the ideal would be zero days, but the numbers 
are good by Ontario standards - and not likely to be moved much by 
the relatively little money a supervised injection site would cost.

To that end, the people who actually treat drug addicts here, the 
people whose work Watson purports to support most keenly, say the 
single big thing that's missing here is supervised injection sites.

They bring in the people who are most likely to die without help and 
the people who are most likely to be making public nuisances of themselves.

Very few street-level addicts wake up one day and decide to quit. 
Drugs are rarely their only problem: they often have mental and 
physical illnesses.

They've been assaulted, beaten, raped - sometimes starting when they 
were children. For some, the board heard over and over again, a good 
day is when they use a clean needle. It's just not realistic to say 
that quitting outright is the only thing worth our approval. Cutting 
back by one cigarette a day is a win if you're trying to quit 
smoking. Taking the stairs is a win if you're trying to get in shape. 
Baby steps.

Watson didn't attend Monday's health board meeting to hear all this 
(his newly hired director of policy, Dylan Stephenson, monitored it).

He doesn't like personally to be in the presence of controversy 
unnecessarily, particularly when he's going to be on the wrong side 
of the room.

This is reminiscent of the mayor's handling of the effort to build a 
casino here: he misfired for months, going as far as advocating two 
casinos at one point before settling back on one little one at the 
Rideau Carleton Raceway.

For a lifelong politician, sometimes Watson's got pretty bad 
political instincts. But not so bad that he can't sense that some 
wiggle room might be useful later, as it is right now.

If Watson has concerns he wants to voice but is ultimately willing to 
stand aside and let scientific and medical experts lead the way, 
that's the right thing, no matter how he got to that view. Baby steps.

Note: Ottawa's board of health voted 9-2 in favour of supporting 
supervised drug-injection sites, not 10-1 as I reported Tuesday. 
Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Michael Qaqish joined Stittsville Coun. 
Shad Qadri in dissenting. I missed Qaqish's dissent because the board 
voted informally, without having members say yea or nay one at a time.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom