The Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre opened in Calgary in 2008, just south of the city’s downtown. The eight-storey building, in a bustling neighbourhood of homes and businesses, offers urgent care and an array of services. In late 2017, it also became home to Alberta’s first supervised drug-consumption site.
Today, the Chumir still hosts Calgary’s only such facility. In the midst of the deadly opioid epidemic, it is a small success story. There were about 190 visits a day in 2019, with health-care workers handling an average of more than one overdose daily. The service saved lives.
The site has also been a challenge for the neighbourhood. Crime spiked after it opened, but the situation has since improved. The local neighbourhood association recently highlighted positive health-care results and pointed to police statistics showing that crime around the Chumir is no worse than in downtown Calgary.
The Chumir Centre appears to be an ideal place for supervised drug consumption. It’s centrally located, with other health services in the same building. The Chumir’s supervised drug site prevents addicts from dying from their addictions; it also refers several hundred people a month to options such as addiction treatment. It’s not perfect but it is progress.
The future of all of that, however, is in jeopardy. There is widespread speculation that Alberta’s United Conservative Party government wants to close the site.
Premier Jason Kenney has not been a supporter of supervised drug consumption, which was introduced by the previous NDP government. “Helping addicts inject poison into their bodies is not a solution to the problem of addiction,” Mr. Kenney said two years ago. During last year’s election campaign, the UCP promised to look at moving existing sites. Last summer, the UCP convened a panel to assess the sites’ negative impacts; it was not asked to weigh their benefits.
Mr. Kenney has seen the report, which is not yet public. It appears to have reached its expected conclusion. Last Tuesday, Mr. Kenney said its findings jibed with his concerns, referred to the facilities as “illegal drug sites” and confirmed some could be relocated.
It’s entirely reasonable to think about how to minimize problems for the neighbours. It’s not reasonable to restrict or ban one of the best tools Canada has for tackling a public health crisis. The sites help addicts stay alive, and get treatment.
Mr. Kenney’s preference is for a focus on treatment. Last fall’s provincial budget included $35-million a year for mental health and opioids. His government has also talked about creating 4,000 new treatment spaces. That’s all well and good, but it fails to appreciate the difficulty of getting people with long-term addictions into treatment. Meanwhile, the government’s aversion to supervised consumption is clear.
The Chumir site may be replaced by a facility in a lower-income neighbourhood, 10 kilometres east of downtown. A better solution, to ease the burden on the Chumir and its community, would be to open more Calgary sites.
Canada has moved a long way on supervised consumption, as the opioids crisis has ravaged the country, killing thousands each year. In 2015, there was just one site, in Vancouver. Today, there are 43, across five provinces. Alberta has seven. Ample research has indicated that the centres save lives and ease burdens on the health-care system.
Benjamin Perrin, a UBC law professor, was Stephen Harper’s justice and public safety adviser in 2012-13. Back then, he was staunchly against supervised consumption. Mr. Perrin has since become the country’s most prominent convert. “My views about drug policy were a deadly cocktail of ignorance and ideology that cost people their lives,” he wrote this week in the Calgary Herald.
In a coming book on the overdose crisis, he argues the answer to local concerns about negative effects of supervised consumption is not fewer venues, but more of them, with extended hours. That would alleviate the pressures on places such as Chumir.
The Kenney government has taken a narrow view of supervised consumption, focused on its negatives. This has led to a skewed view of a difficult situation. It would be a mistake to close the consumption site at Chumir. Alberta needs to expand such services, rather than pushing addiction into the shadows.