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Red Deer city council postpones OPS discussion to Feb. 15 public hearing

Interested Red Deerians will be able to speak at the hearing
The future of Red Deer’s overdose prevention site will be discussed at a public hearing on Feb. 15. (Contributed photo.)

A discussion about the future of Red Deer’s Overdose Prevention Site was pushed back a month and turned into a public hearing.

The question of whether city council should lobby the provincial government to move out of Red Deer an OPS that has reversed more than 500 potentially fatal opioid overdoses since June — will now be discussed starting at 9 a.m. on Feb. 15 in council chambers.

At this “non-statutory public hearing,” interested Red Deerians will be able to express their views to city council — something that would not have been possible at a regular council meeting, at which members of the public are not allowed to speak.

About 40 Red Deerians had turned up for the discussion on Monday, spilling out of council chambers and into a room next door. Mayor Ken Johnston said he had also received several public requests to speak about the OPS.

After a closed-door discussion about how to proceed, council unanimously resolved to postpone the Overdose Prevention Site discussion to mid-February, when the special public meeting will be held.

Johnston apologized to those who showed up only to be sent home again.

He told these citizens that council “has the highest regard for transparency” and therefore will allow people to speak on the issue next month.

Red Deer South MLA Jason Stephan had been encouraging Red Deerians through social media to come out to Monday’s council meeting.

Stephan feels the OPS site “has emboldened law breaking, increased crime, vandalism and disorder, destroyed businesses, and depressed land values in Red Deer.”

Councillor Vesna Higham stated much the same in her Notice of Motion, which is asking council to lobby the province to move the OPS out of the city. Higham favours the recovery model of drug treatment. Rather than having the OPS, she wants council to urge the government to increase supports for mental health and better address the root causes of drug and alcohol addictions.

Stacey Carmichael, former executive director of Turning Point, which ran the OPS before it was taken over by Alberta Health Services mid last year, commented on Stephan’s Facebook page that illicit drug use will continue with or without the OPS.

“Things will not improve” without the local facility, Carmichael stated in her comment to Stephan — “unless you really want people who use drugs to die?”

The OPS does not distribute free drugs. Users bring in their own substances and take them under supervision so that if overdoses happen, they can be reversed before causing fatalities.

The OPS team successfully reversed 514 opioid poisonings since June 1, 2023, with the use of oxygen and/or naloxone, according to data obtained from Alberta Health Services and compiled by the city’s Chief of Staff, Sean McIntyre and research and policy specialist Colin Cannon.

The OPS team has also made 2,569 referrals to recovery-oriented services for clients since AHS assumed operation of the facility in June.

Red Deer’s OPS debate appears to be resounding across the province.

On Monday, Elaine Hyshka, associate professor and Canada research chair in Health Systems Innovation for the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, commented on the platform formerly known as Twitter that closing the local OPS would result in preventable deaths and increased demand for ambulances and hospital care.