Fast-food chains and gas stations in Cape Breton Regional Municipality are installing blue lights in their bathrooms in an attempt to curb intravenous drug use.
It’s one recommendation Cape Breton Regional Police make when companies renovate their buildings. Police say the lights make it more difficult for drug users to locate veins.
But some advocates believe it can do more harm than good.
“It’s putting people who are already most at risk at further risk,” said Janet Bickerton, a registered nurse and volunteer with the Ally Centre of Cape Breton. It is a harm-reduction organization based in Sydney.
“That’s not going to stop people from using,” she said. “It’s just going to make it more difficult and make it more likely they’re not going to use it as safely.”
Bickerton said she understands the desire of business operators to keep drug use out of their establishments. But she said the people abusing drugs are part of the community and are suffering from an illness.
She said it may also drive people to inject in unsafe places or lead to injuries.
Curbing crime through design
A Tim Hortons and a Circle K on George Street in Sydney have installed the lights in their washrooms.
They’re not the only ones, according to Cape Breton Regional Police.
Deputy Chief Robert Walsh said there are other establishments in Sydney, Glace Bay and North Sydney that now have blue lights or have taken other design measures to curb drug use in and around businesses.
“[Drug use] is not just isolated to one area of the CBRM,” said Walsh.
He said the municipality had the highest per capita rate of opioid deaths in the province in 2018.
Over the past few months, regional police have been working with downtown businesses to deal with the opioid crisis.
Crime prevention through environmental design
Police receive frequent calls from businesses in the downtown core with concerns that people are using drugs in their establishments.
That’s part of what led police to conduct Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design audits over the past few months.
If a business owner or resident is concerned, they can contact regional police to perform an audit. Police will offer suggestions about how to make an area less susceptible to drug use or crimes related to drug use.
That could include installing blue lights in bathrooms or keeping washrooms locked. It might also include fencing, cameras, brighter outdoor lights or cutting back bushes and hedges.
But Walsh said the design changes are just a small part of the picture.
He said police have become more visible in the downtown area. They also work with community groups like the Ally Centre and Mental Health and Addictions Services.
Police are working toward adding another 15 needle disposal kiosks throughout CBRM. There are seven in place that collect over 75,000 needles annually.
Safe injection sites
Bickerton believes a safe-injection site is needed. She is a part of the a provincial working group looking at harm reduction.
A safe injection site is expected to open in Halifax soon, she said. The team is now determining what is needed in a safe-injection site in Cape Breton and where it should be located.
Cape Breton Regional Police are also supportive of a safe-injection site.
CBC reached out to a spokesperson for Circle K as well as the owner of the George Street Tim Hortons, but did not get a response.