“You can watch if you want,” says Brandon as he sits down in a chair and puts his drug paraphernalia on the table in front of a mirror.
He fumbles around inside his pocket for the heroin to shoot up and get high. But this time he isn’t doing it alone.
Brandon is one of more than a dozen people who went to the city’s first overdose prevention site that opened at Our Place on Tuesday morning. By noon, around 11 drug users had already used the site to safely inject drugs in the company of a paramedic standing by in case of an overdose.
“I’m more curious about it. I just figured that if I came here other people would follow as well,” said Brandon, who did not want to publish his last name. He isn’t scared about having an overdose since he has a high tolerance to heroin, even though it’s often laced with the highly potent fentanyl, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of B.C. residents this year.
“There is no more heroin on the street. It’s fentanyl that’s made to look like heroin and have the same affects as heroin…This (site) will most definitely help people from dying, but where’s it going to lead after that?”
In response to the increasing number of drug-related deaths, the province is setting up overdose prevention sites at overdose hot spots in Vancouver and Victoria — one at Our Place and another at the housing facility on Johnson Street, where the bulk of tent city residents now live. A third site is planned to open later this month in Rock Bay.
Officials at Our Place have been pushing for a site like this for a long time due to the dramatic increase in drug overdoses this year, which is hovering around 40, and resulted in three people dying. November alone saw almost 20 overdoses that typically happen in the washroom facilities.
A small orange shipping container that’s open from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. now sits in the courtyard at Our Place, which has never been drug friendly, but was pushed to find a solution in response to the growing number of overdoses staff were forced to respond to on a regular basis.
Inside the shipping container is a table with various supplies — syringes, “cookers,” blue rubber bands, water, condoms and a naloxone kit. Users sit in front of a mirror at another table with two chairs.
A paramedic is on hand at all times, along with a peer support worker to provide education.
Ross Nicholls is one of those paramedics. A longtime volunteer at Our Place, Nicholls came out of retirement to work at the new site, which he said is a needed tool to deal with the many problems drug users have.
After injection, Nicholls looks for any signs that the user might collapse. For him, the experience thus far has been an interesting one, and the response from users has also been positive. The wild card, however, is what drugs are currently circulating on city streets.
“Users have a fair bit of confidence in their own knowledge and safety, but all of them know people that haven’t survived. I think there is an underlying sense that there is a safety net there if needed,” said Nicholls, who’s helped with an overdose about four or five times, but Our Place staff have dealt with many more.
While getting off shift on Monday, there was another overdose in the building’s washroom. By the time Nicholls got there staff already had it under control.
“It’s sad that they’ve had that much experience that they were actually very proficient to deal with that,” he said. “When someone is down deep and you’re administering naloxone and they take that first big breath and they start to come through, that’s kind of a sense of relief. You think this one is going to live for another day.”
Earlier this week, the B.C. Coroners Service released the latest numbers on illicit drug overdose deaths, with November marking the highest month on record for the province. In November, 128 people died in B.C., bringing the total so far this year to 755 people compared to 443 in the same period in 2015.
Vancouver is at the top of the list with 164 deaths, followed by Surrey with 92 and Victoria with 60. Fentanyl was detected in about 60 per cent of the deaths.