Mayor’s column: Red Deer city’s role in supervised consumption sites

There has been much profile and speculation in our community regarding the status of the provincial government’s pursuit of “supervised consumption services” (some refer to as “safe consumption or drug injection sites”, or “SCS”) in communities across the province, Red Deer included.

I thought I’d provide a comprehensive update to clarify confusion regarding the actual authorities of the city in relation to this issue, to rectify some misstatements of fact, and to outline the status of the province’s plans for local supervised consumption services from the city’s perspective.

Public health, and health services, are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the provincial government. Funded by the province, last year, local health agency Turning Point (with a coalition of affiliated service providers), began preparing a “needs assessment” of SCS for Red Deer to submit to the provincial government. There was substantial mixed messaging regarding the process of this provincially commissioned report, particularly with respect to critical aspects such as public consultation and The city’s actual decision–making powers; The Associate Minister of Health has since apologized to Red Deer city council for this confusion.

The provincial needs assessment ultimately recommended SCS for the Red Deer region; Alberta Health or its service agencies must first apply for a federal exemption to the Government of Canada to provide supervised consumption services in any given community.

It is important to note that neither a partial nor a complete federal exemption application for SCS in Red Deer has been submitted to date. In anticipation of the fact that the Province or one of its local agencies would likely apply for a federal exemption to pursue supervised consumption services, The city began to prepare for this likelihood by exercising the two limited areas of decision-making authority The city has with respect to this issue: land use/zoning and bylaws.

In December, first reading of land use bylaw amendments to define supervised consumption services in accordance with Federal and Provincial legislation were tabled, in addition to six prospective locations for supervised consumption services as identified in the Provincial needs assessment report. The potential locations identified were three community health clinics (South, downtown and North), two service agencies (Safe Harbour and Turning Point), and the Red Deer Regional Hospital site.

After considering the many written submissions and public comments at the statutory public hearing, council factored multiple land use planning considerations and determined that at this point the grounds of Red Deer Regional Hospital could be the SCS location in the Land Use Bylaw. Council also unanimously voted to prepare Bylaw options for mobile delivery of supervised consumption services, much like other Canadian communities have operational or are pursuing.

At this stage, Alberta Health Services or any of the province’s agencies (such as Turning Point) are able to apply to the Federal and provincial governments to provide SCS either on a permanent or temporary basis at the Red Deer Regional Hospital grounds. This is very similar to the situation in Calgary where portable supervised consumption service units were used while the permanent location was under construction. The Bylaw to facilitate mobile services will be considered by city council within the next few weeks, as an additional option for Alberta Health Services and/or local agencies.

Some citizens are asking council to revisit our December decision and permit SCS at the existing Turning Point location, but council did not approve this location on planning grounds out of concern that it would be an intensification of use not suited to the commercial core of the downtown district. This is very similar to the approach Lethbridge took in finding a location for SCS in the periphery of their downtown. On the other hand, some citizens are asking council to prohibit SCS in Red Deer all together, but municipalities are required by law to make land use provision for a service the federal and provincial governments allow for.

The above does not preclude other potential permanent location options from being proposed in the future. It is important to note that once council makes a zoning approval through land use it is generally considered a property right in perpetuity, so council needs to responsibly weigh both the short and long-term effects of such a crucial decision.

And while the community discourse has been highly focused on SCS, it is also important to note there are additional community approaches that need to be considered in responding to the national opioid crisis that is affecting Red Deer. Our Red Deer Drug & Alcohol Strategy, for example, identified four pillars in response to our local addictions crisis: prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and community safety that need to complement each other.

Through this plan, our community has asked the provincial government to integrate their response in the interests of the safety of all Red Deerians; SCS is only one method of harm reduction, and the Alberta government has yet to respond to our repeated requests for strategies to prevent addictions in the first place, for local access to treatment/addiction recovery, and for AHS to be accountable for their needle distribution program that has resulted in contaminated needle debris in private and public spaces. The Alberta government and its agencies have asked city council to consider addictions as a health crisis; in accepting this it is only reasonable for our community to ask the Provincial Government to respond to our local addictions crisis and its consequences not with a patchwork of band-aids, but a continuum of systemic interventions to responsibly address all aspects of individual and community health and safety.

I hope this helps to answer some of your questions until next month. As always, council looks forward to seeing you all soon and hearing about what is important to citizens in our community.

Until next time…

Mayor Tara Veer

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