For this month’s column, I’m going to address a highly difficult topic, because following crime and public safety, it is the second most significant issue that our community is demanding answers from city council for.
I recognize this is a polarizing issue and my objective is to discuss the issue from city council’s perspective, to correct substantial misinformation that is pervasive in our community, and to demonstrate that council is doing what we can to respond to citizen concerns (concerns that members of council unanimously share) within the limited jurisdiction and authorities we have.
One of the most frequent questions council receives is: “Why is the city handing out needles?”
The answer is simply this: the province hands out needles, not the city.
Needle distribution is the direct jurisdiction of the provincial government, through Alberta Health Services and their agencies’ harms reduction mandate.
The City of Red Deer is responsible for municipal services, not health services, and the city does not distribute needles.
Citizens frequently ask members of council to stop the distribution of needles out of fear for public safety, but the city does not have the power or ability to cease, or even modify, a provincial practice.
According to reported agency numbers, between April 1, 2018, and March 31, 2019, 378,746 harms reduction needles were distributed, compared to 548,909 the previous year, in central Alberta.
Many of these needles were accounted for; for example, safely returned in sharps drop boxes throughout the city. Many, however, are unaccounted for, and “unaccounted for” is a very deliberate word choice, because their whereabouts are unclear.
Some could be safely disposed of in sharps containers in communities in our region, returned to local pharmacies, or they could be in private residential garbages.
We also know that there are numerous needles that are cleaned up by city crews who clean up rough sleeper encampments. They are also cleaned up by other city staff over the course of their day-to-day business.
Unfortunately, we also are acutely aware of the fact that citizens come across drug debris in our public parks, in downtown business vestibules and alleyways, and even on personal property, all of which invite substantial public health concerns for fear of exposure to contaminated needles.
It is, to say the least, a challenging public policy issue that we are calling on the government of Alberta to address.
Harm reduction endeavours to protect public health by preventing the spread of disease amongst individuals who use needles; however, lack of needle protocols cause public safety concerns of their own accord for the communities exposed to their debris.
We recognize that this tension will not be simple for the Ministry of Health to resolve, however, for the health and safety of all, our community’s experience (much like other Alberta communities) suggests that the status quo isn’t working.
While the city does not have any jurisdiction or decision-making authority regarding the distribution of needles, we are actively doing what we can to influence improved protocols at the provincial level, and have prioritized the clean up of needle debris throughout our city.
Here are some of the strategies currently in place to respond to public concerns:
l The city has a 24-hour call line for reporting improperly disposed needles (403-342- 8238).
l City crews regularly clean up needles to keep public places safe.
l With funding from the City of Red Deer, The Downtown Business Association Clean Team conducts a downtown sweep to clean up needles on a daily basis from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
l A needle reporting process is in place to help members of the public understand what to do if they find a needle or other drug paraphernalia.
l A needle disposal guide is distributed by local social agencies and partners in an effort to raise awareness about needle safety, reduce the number of discarded needles, and tell how and where they can safely dispose of needles.
l In September 2017, city council called for Alberta Health to assume responsibility for the impact of the needle distribution in the community and fund the city’s cost for needles pickup; and that Alberta Health initiate a needle exchange program or similar initiative. The province denied this request.
l During a meeting with the associate minister of health in July 2018, needle debris was highlighted as a priority for our city. No commitment to specifically address the issue was made.
l The city recently received $80,000 from the province to put toward strategies to mitigate substance debris. The funding will be used to expand the services of the existing clean team; this will include expanding the area and the hours for drug debris cleanup.
l This fall, council will also be presenting a motion to the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association delegates requesting the government of Alberta address this issue.
I hope this helps to answer any questions you may have had. As always, it is council’s privilege to serve you, and we look forward to seeing you throughout the community throughout the summer.
Mayor Tara Veer