On Monday afternoon, the supervised consumption site in Lethbridge, Alta., shut its doors – perhaps permanently. The facility, which was located in a former nightclub and had as many as 800 visits a day, was a success story; staff and volunteers at the Lethbridge facility have reversed more than 2,500 overdoses since it opened two years ago.
But now, the clinic will be replaced, at least temporarily, by a mobile unit that can accommodate no more than 200 visitors daily. Overdoses are going to continue, just in the streets and in private residences, where there is no one to help.
The result, undoubtedly, will be more deaths – preventable ones.
This is a tragic failure of public policy and public health. At a time when overdoses are killing more Albertans than COVID-19, harm reduction measures are needed more than ever.
The facility came under fire after Arches, the non-profit agency that was running the site, underwent an audit that found that $1.6-million of the $14.4-million it was given in funding was missing. The audit also found excessive salary payments to executives, funds spent on parties and other irregularities. All these allegations are troubling and merit investigation by police – which is under way – and other sanctions. The province, for its part, slashed its funding.
But closing an essential service is not the proper response. If a hospital CEO embezzles money, we don’t cut the hospital’s funding and we certainly don’t shut it down and tell people to get their surgery elsewhere.
If the allegations against Arches’ administrators are true – and we don’t know if they are – the agency should have been put under trusteeship, not given a death sentence. At the very least, the supervised consumption site should have been kept open until a viable alternative was found.
A van just does not cut it. The Lethbridge site had 13 injection booths, where users would bring their own drugs (principally opioids such as heroin and fentanyl) and be supplied with clean needles, and three inhalation rooms for people who choose to smoke drugs including heroin and meth, and it was often full to bursting. The mobile unit, on the other hand, has only three injection booths and no inhalation room.
In 2020, the world’s attention has been focused almost exclusively on the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada and Alberta are no exception.
But we cannot afford to ignore the “other pandemic” – the overdose crisis.
Indeed, the two have intersected. COVID-19 has dramatically changed global trade and shipping and that includes the disruption of drug supply chains. One of the unexpected consequences is that street drugs have become harder to access and far more deadly.
British Columbia has seen a record number of overdose deaths for three months running. In July alone, there were 175 deaths, almost as many as all the COVID-19 deaths in B.C. since January.
Alberta is likely seeing the same phenomenon, except it has made the curious decision to not publish overdose-death statistics during the pandemic, presumably so it can implement a new system. But not releasing data promptly does not change the fact that about two people a day in Alberta are dying of overdoses.
The province has seven supervised consumption sites. There have been a lot of overdoses at those sites, but not a single death.
Harm reduction has never been more popular. It’s now practised broadly by almost every country in the world in response to COVID-19, as they urge hand-washing, physical distancing, mask-wearing and more.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is not a fan of harm reduction by way of supervised consumption sites; he subscribes to the simplistic notion that they “enable” illicit drug use. He’s even commissioned a so-called “study” to investigate the harms caused by supervised consumption sites, not the benefits. Sure, there can be chaos and disruption around consumption sites. But shuttering them only moves the chaos elsewhere.
The reality is that people always have and always will use drugs, for a whole variety of reasons. If they don’t inject, ingest, snort and smoke drugs in supervised conditions, they will do so in alleys, flophouses and their homes. And they will do it not only in big cities such as Vancouver and Calgary, but in smaller, less-equipped towns like Lethbridge.
Mr. Kenney’s government wants stricter enforcement of drug laws and more emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, and these approaches have their place, as do policies such as decriminalization, legalization and providing drugs users with a safe supply.
But no one can benefit from rehabilitation if they’re dead.
Clean needles, supervised consumption sites and the like are not a panacea. But they give people a fighting chance to live another day.
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