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As opioid overdoses rise in Prince Edward Island, the province’s health minister insists his government will deliver on its year-old promise of a safe consumption site.

Ernie Hudson said the province hired a harm reduction co-ordinator earlier this month to work in the chief public health office. Though the mandate is broader than safe consumption, the co-ordinator will form a committee to steer the creation of the site, Hudson said.

He said the committee should be up and running within two months, though he could not give a timeline for the site itself. “We want to get this done, but we want to get it done right,” Hudson said Monday in a telephone interview.

Darlene Compton, the Island’s finance minister, first promised a safe consumption site in the 2020-21 provincial budget. The budget committed $250,000 in “initial funding” for the project. Hudson said the harm reduction co-ordinator’s salary will come from that $250,000 envelope.

This year’s budget, released Feb. 24, makes no mention of a safe consumption site. However, a document outlining feedback from the public during the province’s pre-budget consultations lists “provide safe consumption sites” as a recommendation.

Meanwhile, public health data shows there were 27 accidental opioid-related overdoses on the Island in 2021, compared with 19 the year before.

Seven people died of apparent accidental opioid overdoses between January and September 2021, the numbers show. Data for the final three months of the year is not yet available. In 2020, there were eight fatal opioid overdoses in the entire year.

Angele DesRoches is a program co-ordinator with PEERS Alliance, a Charlottetown-based organization offering health services including safer consumption education programs. She said she’s encouraged by the province’s hiring of a harm reduction co-ordinator.

“But at the same time, we are aware that things haven’t improved on the ground,” DesRoches said in a recent interview. “So we want to see discussions move to action fairly quickly.”

The need for a safe consumption site in Charlottetown was underscored in December 2020, when city officials filled in a tunnel beneath a downtown street often frequented by people who use drugs, she said. “Folks who were commonly frequenting the culvert now rely on public washrooms, or alleyways behind buildings, behind stores,” she said.

An authorized consumption site would provide them a safe, sterile and supervised environment, she said, cutting down on injuries, infections and even deaths.

Hudson acknowledged the harm reduction co-ordinator’s mandate could include other issues such as alcohol and cannabis use, as well as establishing a committee to oversee the creation of a harm reduction site. “We have to look at harm reduction right across the board,” he said.

DesRoches said she understand the idea of harm reduction is broad and can include alcohol and cannabis use. But there are supports in place for those substances, she said, while people using drugs like opioids are falling through the cracks.

“That’s where we really need to focus energy and resources, is filling those cracks for those folks who are experiencing the most complex issues,” she said.

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