Stigma, safety and secrecy

It’s been two years since provincial opioid action plan was introduced and stigma still surrounds safe-needle disposal and injection sites.

Rebecca Blake

It’s a 30-minute walk on the Quidi Vidi Lake trail from the entrance near The King George V Soccer Stadium to the nearest needle drop-off box.

Frank Spurrell is an employee of the St. John’s SWAP branch, the group responsible for the needle exchange program in the city.

“I haven’t heard a ton of feedback yet,” said Spurrell. “Some people use them (needle drop-off boxes) and think they’re great and some people say they can’t find them.”

The needle disposal box is a city of St. John’s project to reduce needle litter and promote safe injection habits. But the locations of the 10 yellow boxes are hard to find, inaccessible and point to the issue surrounding the stigma of safe drug use.

needle drop off boxes SIF AIDS comittee
Needle drop off boxes like this one can be found around St. John’s. The disposal boxes are a part of the city’s plan to decrease needle litter. Rebecca Blake/Kicker


SWAP stands for Safe Works Access Program. It’s run by the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador and a few volunteers. SWAP has been active since 2005.

SWAP works like a delivery system; a drug user makes a call on either a Tuesday or Thursday evening. Next, a driver arrives with safer-injection materials such as needles and filtered water and leaves with used needles.

It’s confidential. But, the drop-off boxes are still more discrete, except for the one on the Quidi Vidi trail.

“The Quidi Vidi box is right in the open. It’s bright yellow and right across from a parking lot. A lot of people don’t use it because of the stigma around it,” said Spurrell.

Spurrell has said he has heard from clients the location of needle-disposal boxes, such as the one located out in the open at Quidi Vidi, makes it harder for clients to avoid the shame and stigma surrounding safer drug use.

The lack of access to safer injection sites, to needle-disposal boxes and information hubs makes it harder for groups such as SWAP to fight the growing intravenous drug epidemic.

Listen to a Kicker report on SWAP and SHOP here

Two years since opiod action plan was released

In 2016, John Haggie, minister of Health and Community Services, outlined the province’s opioid action plan at a national summit.

The plan outlined working with SWAP and creating monitoring systems for prescription drugs. But, the plan did not mention increasing accessibility to safer disposal units or safer injection sites.

needle Box
The City of St. John’s put several boxes around town. According to Spurrell, some people have had trouble finding them. Rebecca Blake/Kicker

SWAP is one of many safer-drug use initiatives to pop-up in St. John’s. Use Safe NL was another initiative. It was a student-run social project that aimed to create awareness around safer intravenous drug use.

In a CBC article, Memorial University  students advocated for a safe injection site in hopes of creating better accessibility for drug users.

However, when the semester ended, so did the project.

Johanna Faith, a volunteer with the program, said in a text response the project hasn’t moved forward in a year and they didn’t feel comfortable doing an interview because it wasn’t active.

Safer-injection sites still hard to come by

An FAQ created by the Canadian Centre of Substance Use and Addiction says that 75,000 to 125,000 people inject drugs in Canada. There are 30 approved sites across the country.

There are zero government approved safe-injection sites in Newfoundland and Labrador.

During a 30-minute walk to the drop-off box on Quidi Vidi, clients have a lot of time to think about those numbers.

If you or a loved one are at risk; reach out for help. Call 811 health line to find addiction counsellors near you.

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