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‘This will save lives’: Vancouver Island city gets safe inhalation site

Initiative spearheaded by a Comox Valley resident with lived experience
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Project co-ordinator Taija McLuckie stands in the parking lot beside the Connect Centre. This location will temporarily host the Valley’s first safe inhalation site before permanently relocating to the parking lot of Courtenay’s Overdose Prevention Site at 941 England Ave. (Olivier Laurin / Comox Valley Record)

On Feb. 5, Island Health gave the green light to the Comox Valley’s first safe inhalation site.

Project co-ordinator Taija McLuckie, responsible for spearheading this peer-led initiative, expressed that this milestone has been a long time in the making.

After advocating for a year and a half for the approval of this project, the young woman with lived experience emphasized that this has the potential to save numerous lives.

“A safe inhalation site is a place where substance users who inhale their drugs can be monitored, and provided with a clean supply, without fear of stigma or persecution,” said McLuckie. “(On top of that) we will be able to provide medical attention (and offer a place where) clients will be more likely to access (social) services or treatment.”

Alongside Island Health’s outreach team, the safe inhalation services are set to operate up to seven hours a day, seven days a week.

Hosted in a walled tent for the first few months, the safe inhalations site is to eventually be relocated to the parking lot of Courtenay’s Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) at 941 England Ave., away from Courtenay’s city centre, to alleviate the pressure caused by the ongoing homeless crisis on neighbouring businesses.

A written statement provided by Island Health to the Record reads: “This (initiative) will save lives, expand access to vital services and connect people to other services and supports. Island Health will continue to seek more ideal options for longer-term solutions.”

Formerly working at AVI, a harm reduction clinic, McLuckie estimated that 90 per cent of substance users in the Valley smoke their drug, thus emphasizing the importance of having a safe inhalation site in the community.

She explained that the risk of overdoses occurs when a stimulant user, smoking substances like methamphetamine, amphetamine, or crack cocaine, inadvertently uses the smoking equipment of an opiate consumer (such as fentanyl or heroin) still containing traces. As a result, this cross-contamination can prove to be fatal.

Island Health further stated that “the Comox Valley is the only community of its size on Vancouver Island with OPS that does not currently support inhalation as a mode of consumption.”

Translating thoughts into change

It’s while working at the Connect Centre, having witnessed countless overdoses, that the passing of two cherished clients in February 2023 served as the catalyst for McLuckie’s commitment to finding a solution.

Having seen what is successfully being done in other cities like Powell River, Victoria, and Vancouver, the young woman was puzzled as to why the region had no safe inhalation site yet.

Soon, McLuckie identified a repetitive pattern, arguing that “everything is entrenched in politics” and entangled in countless bureaucratic processes. She felt that this hindered progress and favoured the maintenance of a status quo.

“I was racking my brain to find (a solution),” said McLuckie. “No one was listening and no one was getting it. We had to do something.”

The local advocate ultimately contacted public speaker and addiction expert Guy Felicella for some insight.

“I phoned him to know what should I do. I was about to do something irrational at this point. I was ready to put a sea-can in the city hall parking lot. I needed some support. I needed someone else, outside of our community, to look at what was happening. (The Valley) has so many non-profits and (governmental agencies) that are doing such an amazing job, but we’re stuck in the same perpetuating cycle of meeting after meeting. Everything was taking forever.”

Felicella successfully connected McLuckie with Charmaine Enns, the North Island regional medical health officer, within 24 hours.

“(That same night), Guy told me that I should expect a phone call from her soon and then, boom, the next day, I got a phone call from her,” said McLuckie. “We had a great conversation.”

From then on, the two formed a lasting partnership in their quest to establish the region’s first safe inhalation site.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to work alongside and support Taija in the development of these necessary services,” said Enns. “There is no single solution or initiative that will sufficiently address this ongoing crisis, so the addition of witnessed inhalation is a significant step forward as we work to reduce the impacts of this crisis on individuals and communities.”

After meeting with numerous local stakeholders, medical experts, municipal politicians, and the RCMP throughout the summer of 2023, McLuckie found that, despite some progress being made, things were still progressing too slowly for her taste.

Faced with one obstacle after another, she once again sought guidance from an external source to determine the next course of action.

In July, McLuckie met with Jack Phillips, co-founder of SOLID Outreach Society - a pioneering Victoria-based non-profit that has successfully established numerous safe inhalation sites throughout the capital city.

“I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I think that we spend so much time trying to establish (something new) when there are already systems in place that are working. Might as well make (good use of them),” said McLuckie. “Every hour we waste, more people are at risk of dying.”

For the next few months, McLuckie travelled back and forth between Victoria and the Valley to learn how to properly co-ordinate and implement a successful safe inhalation site.

On Feb. 5, McLuckie received approval from Island Health to start co-ordinating the temporary safe inhalation tent starting its operation in the coming weeks of February.

Nearly a year to the day after the passing of McLuckie’s two beloved clients, she hopes that this novel initiative will prevent many more losses of life in the future.

The Record attempted to contact Jack Philipps for an interview but did not receive a response before the deadline.

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Olivier Laurin

About the Author: Olivier Laurin

Olivier is a bilingual multimedia journalist from Montréal, Québec. He possesses a deep curiosity and a passion for exploring the connections between people and their communities.
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