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Clean Needle Vending Machines for Harm Reduction

Clean Needle Vending Machines for Harm Reduction

Author: Justin Mckibben

Clean needle vending machines may be the bold new territory beyond needle exchange programs or safe injection sites that is gaining popularity. It aims to make some of the resources utilized with other harm reduction programs even more accessible. They may seem counter-intuitive, but they are progressive and can be extremely useful to helping addicts slowly but surely find the will to change.

Harm reduction is a contentious strategy for combating the adverse impacts of drug abuse to prolong the lives of addicts. While many say harm reduction is just another word for enabling, many more say it is a powerful and compassionate tool for preserving lives until they seek the help they need. Harm reduction is essentially policies, programs and practices that are aimed to reduce the harms associated with drug use for those unable or unwilling to stop. The idea is for prevention of harm, not the drug use in itself. So some say this is only prolonging the problem. Others insist it helps to prevent the spread of disease and provides options and information to those who may need help but don’t yet know how to get it.

Like most things, technology and creative strategies are changing the way harm reduction works. Clean needle vending machines have been put in place in other countries, and some say they might just take it to the next step for saving lives. Is it a step too far, or a step in the right direction?

Canadian Clean Needle Vending Machines

The need for more access to sterile needles is obvious for most. Reports released last June to Ottawa’s public health board showed:

  • There are up to 5,000 intravenous drug users throughout the city
  • Estimated 13.9% had admitted using previously used needles

Soon Canada will see clean needle vending machines in the capital city of Ottawa. These vending machines will also be carrying other forms of harm reduction equipment; although not every detail of the specific materials have been confirmed at this time.

Recently a report from the Ottawa Citizen stated local authorities will introduce the clean needle vending machines in five locations throughout the city, providing crucial services for drug users who need clean needles after normal business hours. Reports also say it is almost a guarantee that glass pipes, typically used to smoke crack/cocaine or meth, will be included.

How Will It Work?

Vera Etches, Ottawa’s deputy medical officer of health, confirmed the province would be covering the costs of these clean needle vending machines and that city dollars would not be used. Surely, this was done in an effort to ensure tax-paying citizens wouldn’t be too concerned about where their money was going.

The initiative for this new harm reduction equipment will run as a pilot project. Prospective vendors are told the clean needle vending machines should be delivered as early as the end of February. However, Etches says that date may be subject to change. Etches included,

“We can’t rush things…These kinds of initiatives are making sure the community is involved.”

Access to the machines will most likely be restricted. Ideally, only those receiving a card or token from an existing social service program able to utilize them.

Conclusions from Communities

Some may wonder how the people from the community may be reacting to this kind of technology being in their area. Last summer a survey was conducted that included 2,263 Ottawa residents. The data shows:

  • 62% believed the harm reduction dispensing machines would be “beneficial” to the city
  • 51% had “no concern” about the units

This idea isn’t brand new though. The Canadian city of Vancouver installed vending machines with crack pipes in 2014 along with its harm reduction program. Clean needle vending machines are already available in:

  • New Zealand
  • Australia
  • Some European cities


There are a few aspects of the program that people are not particularly certain of. Ottawa residents have voiced some concerns that naloxone, the opiate overdose antidote, will not be available in the machines. To this concern, Etches said naloxone is not included because they feel it should have to go hand in hand with proper overdose response training.

Others are concerned that unlike the typical harm reduction clinics, such as safe injection sites or needle exchanges, these clean needle vending machines will provide a limited amount of information for drug users. In this regard, Etches clarified that the clean needle vending machines intended to be a supplement for these facilities, not a replacement.

The question becomes- is it right to have this kind of access to such resources? Are these programs effective? If you aim to regulate clean needle vending machines with cards or tokens, who will have access? What qualifies an addict to get a card or token? Most harm reduction programs offer information and education for treatment options and even put people in touch with facilities. Will this method be as effective?

Then we ask- if it works there, would it work here in our communities?

Preventing of death and the spread of disease is vital, and getting the right kind of treatment for drug addiction is paramount to progress. If you or someone you love is struggling, don’t wait. Please call toll-free now.

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