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Is installing blue lights the answer to deterring drug use in public bathrooms?

The owner-operator of a Tim Hortons in Woodstock, Ont., says installing blue lights in its washrooms has decreased the number of drug overdoses in the coffee shop.

Some businesses have installed blue lights in their public washrooms in an effort to curb intravenous drug use there, working on the concept the lights reduce vein visibility. But some harm reduction advocates worry the approach is pushing intravenous users to more dangerous spaces.

“Just like so many other businesses, we have had an issue with homeless people coming into our washrooms and doing drugs and shooting up,” said Leslie Farrell at the Tim Hortons on Norwich Avenue. 

“We would probably call the police at least once a day, sometimes more.”

Woodstock does not have a safe injection site.

My biggest fear was that a young child would go into the washroom and find somebody had [overdosed] on the floor.– Leslie Farrell, Tim Hortons owner

“I was given some advice that the blue lights do help with them trying to find their veins,” said Farrell, who installed the lights in the store’s two washrooms about a year ago. “We’ve not had to call for anybody [who overdosed] in our washrooms since we put the blue lights on. We still do have a little bit of the problem, but definitely has curbed it tremendously.”

When her customers ask why the bathrooms are lit so strangely, she said: “I think they’re happy because we’re trying to be a little proactive with the situation.”

The idea behind using blue lights in public washrooms, as shown in this file photo, is to make it harder to find veins for injection drug use. (CBC)

Harm reduction advocates worry about approach

“Just because overdoses are no longer happening in Tim Hortons bathrooms doesn’t mean they are not happening,” said longtime harm reduction advocate Dr. Andrea Sereda of the London Intercommunity Health Centre in southwestern Ontario.

“We know from research that drug users only travel a maximum of 500 metres from point of drug purchase to location to use,” she said. “Therefore these injections are still happening in the immediate area surrounding the Tim Hortons.

“I do actually understand why businesses don’t want injections on their premises — liability, impact on other customers, fear within their employees when it happens,” Sereda said. “However, blue lights don’t stop the harm of injection drug use.

“Blue lights only move the injections into less safe spaces, probably resulting in more death.”

Plus, it’s unlikely the blue lights would prevent all people from injecting drugs, she said.

According to a 2013 study published in the Harm Reduction Journal, “Blue lights are unlikely to deter injection drugs use in public washrooms, and may increase drug use-related harms.” When someone injects drugs into the surrounding tissue instead of a vein, the person is at higher risk of infection, said Sereda.

Dr. Andrea Sereda is with the Intercommunity Health Centre in London, Ont., an agency that specializes in treating vulnerable members of society. ‘Just because overdoses are no longer happening in Tim Hortons bathrooms doesn’t mean they are not happening,’ says Sereda. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Safer bathroom toolkit

This fall, a collaborative research team from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR), involving the University of Victoria, Vancouver Coastal Health, the University of British Columbia and the BC Centre on Substance Use, released a safer bathroom toolkit.

It includes signs such as this one:

A collaborative research team from British Columbia released a safer bathroom toolkit this fall. (Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research)

“Bathrooms can provide private, seemingly safe spaces for people to use substances, especially when they are unable to access supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites,” the news release reads. 

But using drugs alone in a public bathroom isn’t safe, say the researchers. According to the team, restricting access to bathrooms or implementing measures to discourage substance use isn’t the answer either.

“Doing so increases risks for people who use substances, staff and other people at risk of injury due to unsafe bathroom lighting, layout and so forth,” the release said. “There are ways of making bathrooms safer for people who use substances.”

The toolkit includes a bathroom checklist for businesses and other organizations that considers the layout of the facility, staff safety training and spot checks.

For now, Farrell is keeping the blue lights on. 

“We’re just like every other community right now,” she said. “We’re struggling with our homeless population and with homelessness comes addictions as well. Everybody in our community, whether it’s the United Way or the police board, we’re all trying to work together to come to some solution.

“I don’t have the magic answer. I just know that we do have a community that cares and everybody is trying to come to some sort of a solution.”

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