Updated: Red Deer council says hospital is the only possible location for supervised consumption site

Council wants Alberta Health Services to step up and assume responsibility

Only Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre — or its parking lot — will be considered by Red Deer council as a location for a supervised drug consumption site.

Neither Turning Point’s downtown address, nor the Safe Harbour site, were deemed appropriate locations for the controversial service by Red Deer city councillors, who held one of their most difficult, emotional discussions on Wednesday morning after hearing from the public on Tuesday.

Coun. Ken Johnston spoke of his shock at witnessing three overdose deaths while at his wife’s bedside in Red Deer’s intensive care unit over four months last year.

“People are dying today — and it’s a physical, difficult death,” said Johnston, who had unsuccessfully argued, along with Councillors Michael Dawe and Frank Wong, to keep the Turning Point location on the table.

Coun. Tanya Handley was among the majority of council who endorsed Coun. Vesna Higham’s motion to have it removed — but not without some qualms.

Handley spoke of attending two funerals of family members who died because of the opioid crisis, and another relative who’s still struggling with drug abuse. She explained she’s going with Higham’s land use planning rationale because she was elected to make the best decisions for Red Deer as a whole.

“You can appreciate how difficult this is because it’s so personal,” said Mayor Tara Veer.

Council heard many complaints about crime, needle debris, and lack of public safety in the downtown at Tuesday’s public hearing.

Although councillors declined to support Turning Point’s location for a supervised drug consumption site, they agreed the group was the best choice to operate the consumption program because of its on-going relationship with drug users.

It will now be up to Turning Point to come up with another application for the service, this time with a hospital location.

What also emerged from council’s intense discussion was the possibility of having mobile unit operating in the hospital’s parking lot, as is done in Montreal, as well as Kamloops and Kelowna in B.C. This will be discussed further in January.

Councillors repeatedly described being “disheartened” and “frustrated” by the provincial’s government’ lack of “partnership” with the municipality. Councillors Dianne Wyntjes, Michael Dawe, Ken Johnston and Lawrence Lee were among those who called out Alberta Health Services for abdicating its responsibility to provide medical services to all Albertans.

Instead, they said AHS is sticking the municipality with a very difficult, divisive issue — while leaving it with very little input and very few choices as to location.

In a letter sent to council just before Tuesday’s public hearing, AHS said it won’t support the delivery of supervised drug consumption in either the hospital nor local health clinics because those spaces are needed for other programs.

Council opted to “push back” by leaving Red Deer hospital as the only location for any consumption site application that comes forward.

Mayor Tara Veer said this decision was based solely on planning considerations: “The minister of health recognizes that the opioid crisis is a health matter,” so the service belongs at the hospital, not amid downtown businesses and residences.

But if council’s decision helps highlight the community’s concern about “infrastructure deficits” at Red Deer’s hospital, so much the better, added Veer, who “the health and lives of all Albertans matter.”

Council previously opted to take Safe Harbour off the table because the group doesn’t want to offer the service, lacks resources and already offers a medical detox.

Red Deer’s three health clinics were also removed because of their proximity to neighbourhoods and children’s facilities.


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