Turning Point staff expect to hear in January that Red Deer is the next Alberta city to get a supervised drug consumption site.
“If everything goes well, it could be up and running by the spring,” said executive-director Stacey Carmichael, who was told Alberta Health’s decision on the proposed site will be announced just after the New Year.
Carmichael will be surprising if the controversial proposal gets rejected, considering Red Deer has the highest drug overdose death rate in Alberta, and Edmonton and Lethbridge were already approved for supervised consumption sites.
Red Deer city council won’t have a say on the approval — except on where the site will be located.
City council was officially told in an Oct. 3 letter from Alberta’s associate health minister Brandy Payne that council’s input “is not requested and is not required” for the needs assessment that was done last summer and sent to the province.
Payne wrote, while local governments are considered “key stakeholders” in the opioid response — specifically in implementing safe consumption services — no city councils were asked to take a formal position on SCS.
Instead, Alberta Health has partnered with local harm reduction agencies, such as Turning Point, “to lead community coalitions in needs assessments for SCS in cities around the province.”
This prompted concern from many city councillors who felt the democratic process is being circumvented by the province. Although nine public input sessions were held last summer, they believe many people were away and were unaware.
Coun. Vesna Higham called the lack of meaningful public engagement “a source of frustration,” while Coun. Lawrence Lee said this is too important an issue for further debate to be curtailed.
Coun. Ken Johnston also expressed displeasure that discussions were being stymied, but noted “it’s a life or death issue,” so can understand the urgency in moving forward. Referring to Turning Point experts, Johnston said, “let us support the people who are casting out life preservers …”
Carmichael urged council members to get past the stigma around drug use and consider it a health crisis, not a morality issue. While she strongly supports the need for a local residential treatment centre, she noted if one opened tomorrow, not every drug user would go.
“It’s a process,” she added, noting SCS starts a lot of addicted people towards treatment. “We should not let stigma, judgment and fear dictate how we look after our most vulnerable citizens.”
An impassioned Mayor Tara Veer responded, “Everybody in this room is concerned about the opiate crisis,” and probably knows an affected family.
It’s not about judgment, Veer added, but about allowing all community members a voice — and about council having time to fully study the pros and cons of a proposal that could affect public safety.
As a result of Payne’s letter, council voted unanimously to direct city administration to report by Nov. 30 on the land use and development aspects of locating a supervised consumption services in Red Deer. (Coun. Dianne Wyntjes was absent and did not vote).