Pubdate: Fri, 23 Jun 2017
Source: Lethbridge Herald (CN AB)
Copyright: 2017 The Lethbridge Herald
Author: Melissa Villeneuve
Page: A1


Opioid overdoses higher in South Zone than elsewhere in the

A Lethbridge coalition on opioid use is preparing an application to
establish supervised drug consumption services in the city to reduce
harm and help save lives.

Supervised consumption services provide a clean, safe space for people
who use drugs to do so under the supervision and care of health
professionals without fear of arrest or overdose. They also provide
access to support services such as counselling, education and
treatment for drug addictions.

The move comes after a sixmonth comprehensive needs assessment was
completed by the Lethbridge Executive Leaders Coalition on Opioid Use,
which includes ARCHES Society. A total of 207 drug users were
interviewed from a variety of demographics.

The needs assessment verified what was already known, said Jill
Manning, ARCHES managing director.

"Everyone within the community has seen that the visibility of public
drug use has increased rapidly over the past year and a half or so,"
she said. "What goes hand-in-hand with that is we have increased
numbers of needle debris and drug-use debris within the community, as
well as increased calls to EMS/fire/ambulance and police. All of our
systems right now are feeling the crunch of what's happening because
we don't have somewhere for people to go and use drugs safely."

Manning estimates there are 3,000 drug users in Lethbridge, and double
that number within southwest Alberta. Overdose rates are 24 per cent
higher in the South Zone than anywhere else in the province, she said.

Overdose deaths in Alberta are at "crisis levels," she said, and a
supervised consumption site will reduce the number of local fatalities.

"We are losing more people currently to overdose fatalities than we
ever did at the height of the HIV epidemic. We are losing more than
one person per day through the 2016 year, and we anticipate that going

A total of 559 Albertans died last year from opioid-related drug
overdoses. Of those deaths, 363 were attributed to fentanyl or

In the first quarter of 2017, 117 Albertans died from a fentanyl or
carfentanil overdose, almost double from the same time last year.

"If that continues, and we expect that it will, we'll be at rates of
losing two or more people per day," said Manning. "We're on track for
that for 2017."

Fire/EMS Chief Rich Hildebrand said they've seen firsthand the
increasing number of overdoses in the past few years. The life-saving
drug Naloxone is being administered more frequently, although he
didn't have the exact numbers.

"We see that, year over year, the trend is increasing quite
dramatically. I think what strikes my staff most profoundly with this
opioid issue, it's the nature of the deaths - a lot of youth involved
and just the frequency we're seeing these overdoses occur."

Emergency responders not only assist during a medical call, but are
also one of a few agencies deployed to clean up needle debris in
public areas. It's impacting resources on a regular basis.

"We think a facility like this would have a positive impact and reduce
those responses," he said.

The coalition was formed in November to improve the coordination of
services to respond more effectively to the opioid crisis. It includes
representatives from the health, police, justice, emergency medical,
post-secondary, municipal, education and social service sectors.
They've conducted a number of stakeholder interviews and are moving
into the public discussion phase next month.

Due to the epidemic, much of the coalition's focus has been on
enhancing harm reduction efforts. They also support prevention, early
intervention, treatment and rehabilitation.

The province has earmarked funding for potential supervised
consumption sites. There are only two operating in Canada, both n
Vancouver. Health Canada has received more than a dozen applications,
including from Calgary and Edmonton.

Similar sites have been in use in numerous cities throughout Europe
for the past 30 years, with the first one in Switzerland in the 1980s.
ARCHES had the opportunity to visit that site, and nine others across
Europe, a couple months ago. It was a good opportunity to take away
best practices from those sites as they have operated for many years,
said Manning.

"Also it's really reassuring to the community as we have evidence that
supports these are effective and that they can make a

While many provinces are moving ahead with supervised consumption
sites, Alberta is lagging a bit behind in understanding what harm
reduction is, said Dr. Karin Goodison, AHS Medical Officer of Health,
South Zone.

"I think it's really important as we move to look at a
safe-consumption site in Lethbridge that people really truly
understand what harm reduction is about," she said. "Harm reduction is
very evidence-based. It's the process where we meet people where
they're at and try to offer them services. It does show that we have a
lot of people actually move away from using in an unsafe way to using
in safer ways, less medical issues, and accessing services in a more
healthful manner."

People cannot obtain drugs at these sites, rather it's a safe place to
do drugs without fear of arrest, she explained.

"There are staff that are observing for symptoms of overdose and they
can actually apply an intervention. In the case of an opioid overdose
for example, they would give Naloxone and call 911 to make sure that
person gets to hospital for appropriate care."

Supervised consumption services also allow access to supports that
drug users might not otherwise connect with, such as housing or
employment services, addictions counselling, general health and mental
health care.

"This service is along a spectrum. It exists in partnership with other
services and supports like prevention, early intervention,
rehabilitation treatment. All of those exist together - this is only
one aspect of that," said Manning. "We certainly aren't trying to make
the argument that harm reduction or supervised consumption services
are going to be the solution for this. This is a multi-faceted crisis
that we're facing, so this is one mechanism we can do to try and fight

A list of potential sites for Lethbridge is being developed and will
be narrowed down through the application process. The facility would
require a federal exemption to allow drug use inside the building.

The cost to run the facility is estimated at $1.5 million per year.
There has been some pushback from those who say they don't want to see
their tax dollars go toward supervised consumption sites, said Manning.

"The reality is our taxpayer dollars are already covering these
expenses. So whether it be through providing a facility for people to
consume drugs under supervision, or whether it be through increased
costs to our emergency systems... By providing easier access to these
services, we're really doing a lot of preventative stuff, not only
from a treatment/recovery/rehabilitation perspective, but also simply
from a mental and physical health-care perspective."

Nine community discussion sessions are planned between July 4-20 to
provide information and answer questions from residents. There is
limited space, so those who wish to attend must register in advance by
contacting ARCHES will send the application to Health Canada by the end of July.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt