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The ARCHES building, a supervised drug consumption site, sits locked with signs telling people where they can seek help elsewhere, in Lethbridge, Alta., on Sept. 18, 2020.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

A group in Lethbridge that launched an unsanctioned supervised drug-consumption site, attracting protesters and the provincial government’s ire, intends to apply to Health Canada for permission to legally operate their makeshift facility.

The Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society (LOPS) formed after Alberta accused ARCHES, the organization that ran the city’s larger supervised-consumption site, of financial mismanagement and cut off its funding at the end of August. Alberta filled the harm-reduction gap with a large white van that serves as a supervised drug-use site. The mobile unit, however, has much less capacity and substance users have not fully embraced it. Drug users have been congregating in places such as Galt Gardens, Lethbridge’s downtown park, since ARCHES closed.

LOPS, in turn, set up an unsanctioned site in Galt Gardens last month, arguing it is necessary to help vulnerable people because the government is falling short. Four people collectively consumed illicit drugs five times on the tent’s inaugural evening. Then, after the public learned about the pop-up site through local media, protesters met LOPS in the park and called for the city and police to intervene, scaring away potential clients. While the group does not have Health Canada’s permission to run its site, police cannot charge them with anything unless officers witness someone consuming drugs in the tent.

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The clash over the tent could turn into a legal battle that, ultimately, challenges whether the Alberta government is doing enough to keep people with substance addictions safe. Now when the tent is up and volunteers are using it to hand out food, water, naloxone kits, needles and other materials, bylaw officers are issuing Tim Slaney, one of the people behind LOPS, tickets for holding an event in a park without permission. The fines are $300 apiece and so far, he has collected three tickets. He plans to fight them and critics who accuse LOPS of exacerbating Lethbridge’s opioid crisis.

“We are not bringing an impact. We are responding to an impact," Mr. Slaney said.

Jason Luan, Alberta’s associate minister for mental health and addictions, in an open letter last week said LOPS’s tent is unnecessary and shameful, and could harm the marginalized citizens it purports to serve.

“We need them to come to these authorized services so that we can help keep them alive and refer them to detox, recovery and other live-saving supports," Mr. Luan wrote. “If this group truly wanted to protect and support our fellow citizens who are not well, they would be directing them to legal health-care services, rather than creating chaos, confusion and using them as a political tool.”

Galt Gardens is about 650 metres away from the mobile drug-consumption site. Alberta’s sanctioned site operates 20 hours a day, seven days a week, compared with ARCHES’s 24/7 facility. LOPS does not have a schedule and when it is running, it is only for a couple of hours in the evening, overlapping with the mobile unit.

LOPS, which has raised $18,000 on GoFundMe, will continue to set up the tent occasionally to distribute food and harm-reduction supplies as it prepares its Health Canada application, Mr. Slaney said. LOPS has had preliminary discussions with Health Canada officials, he said. Health Canada would not confirm this.

Mr. Slaney said LOPS is not arguing the government’s mobile site is a failure. Volunteers, he said, first suggest that visitors to the tent use the official site. But, Mr. Slaney said, LOPS believes it can augment the mobile unit’s services.

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Lethbridge Police Service Staff Sergeant Dwayne Smith confirmed authorities would press charges if they witnessed someone consume illegal drugs in LOPS’s unsanctioned tent. The police service, he said, is monitoring the tent and protesters, keeping the peace between the two sides.

“It is a bit of a political quagmire,” he said.

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