Panel to review impacts of safe injection sites on Alberta communities

CALGARY — An Alberta government-appointed panel to examine the social and economic impacts of safe consumption sites for drug users will not consider the health benefits of such sites or the social issues surrounding drug abuse.

“We’re trying to balance the system,” Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, said Monday.

“The existing government already has a wealth of information supporting the merits of supervised consumption sites. The community side of impact seems to be left out.”

But the New Democrat Opposition’s critic for mental health and addictions called it a rigged panel that will pave the way toward closing or moving such sites.

“The direction of Premier (Jason) Kenney and Minister Luan leads to unnecessary deaths, leads to bodies on the street,” said Heather Sweet from Lethbridge, where city council was to consider a proposal to defund the community’s safe consumption site Monday.

Luan said the panel will consider the impact of the sites on crime rates, social order, property values and business impacts. It will not look at harm reduction, establishing new sites, provincial funding or issues such as housing.

Committee vice-chair Geri Bemister-Williams, a university criminologist and former drug addict, said that won’t limit the report the panel is expected to deliver to cabinet by the end of the year.

“We don’t exclude or come to the table with assumptions. Right now it’s a blank slate and we’re here to gather facts,” she said.

Luan left little doubt as to the nature of the panel’s work.

“The focus of this panel is to assess the social and economic impact to the community and business, which has previously been left out.”

Luan said research on the effectiveness of safe injection sites already exists and will be delivered to cabinet along with the panel’s report. Considering the issue again would confer a “double benefit” on advocates for such sites, he said.

“We already acknowledge the evidence that supervised consumption contributes to harm reduction. We’re expanding the subject.”

Luan said he intends to release the panel’s report, which will be written after a series of yet-to-be announced public meetings this fall.

Sweet said the panel is stacked with advocates of an “abstinence-only” approach and doesn’t include anyone from supervised consumption services.

Issues such as housing have to be part of any drug policy review, she said. She pointed out the UCP government has placed housing support programs on hold.

“If these sites are closed, people will die in the back alley of these businesses. They’ll die in front of these businesses. These people have no place to go.”

The panel will be led by former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht. Its other members include an economist, three doctors, a Realtor and the mother of a young man who died of an overdose. She is now involved with an adolescent recovery centre.

Knecht has previously written that safe consumption sites should be part of a broader plan.

“Supervised injection sites can, and should be, a gateway to helping addicts, who are often suffering in isolation with mental and physical illness and, most often, homelessness,” he wrote in 2017.

That’s just what happens, said Sweet.

“Many find the on-ramp to treatment that they won’t find in an alley, a park or a coffee shop bathroom.”

A review of safe injection sites was a United Conservative Party election promise.

There are currently seven in Alberta — in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge — with proposals for one in Red Deer, Medicine Hat and another in Calgary. Luan said services will continue to be provided at the existing centres for the time being.

Edmonton has four injection sites, three clustered in the downtown core. A business and community group filed a Federal Court lawsuit earlier this year in an attempt to quash their permits, arguing the sites put too great a strain on the community. A court rejected the application.

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