Opinion: Supervised consumption sites can’t be abandoned in Alberta

By Heather Sweet

When Jason Luan, the provincial government’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, announced a freeze on funding for supervised consumption sites, my heart stopped for a minute.

As a social worker, I know all too well what happens when people struggling with addiction are not supported. They face greater risk of homelessness, violence, crime and death.

Since Jan. 1, 2016, 2,183 individuals have died from an accidental opioid-related poisoning in Alberta.

This week, Luan responded to questions about the future of supervised consumption sites by saying “they just keep talking about keeping you alive, reviving you from an overdose. Then we’ll do it again tomorrow and we’ll do it 10 times the day after tomorrow…”

This callous and uncaring way of speaking about people’s lives shook me. I just kept thinking, “what if this was your brother? Would you still think it isn’t worth saving a life, just because you might be lucky enough to save it again?”

In exasperation, I reached out to Dr. Bonnie Larson, the lead of the Street CCRED Collaborative in Calgary.

Her words captured exactly what I was thinking.

“How do they think folks even get to detox and treatment without harm reduction?” Larson said.

“I am sitting at Alpha House this very minute, caring for people who have had overdoses in the past few days. They are recovering while I write them a prescription for opioid agonist therapy and fill out medical forms for treatment programs.”

The Alberta Opioid Response Surveillance Report released last month demonstrated that while tragically, lives are still being lost as a result of the opioid crisis in Alberta, fewer lives were lost because of supports offered by the former NDP government, of which safe consumption sites are a key part.

We know what the evidence shows. It shows supervised consumption services save lives, reduce transmission of infections by providing sterile needles and equipment, and build safer communities by supporting people who use drugs in accessing services and reducing public substance use and discarded needles.

What the UCP government isn’t telling you, and what most people may not realize, is that supervised consumption sites offer a way to connect those struggling with addiction to further supports.

For many, it is the only window into treatment they’ll ever have. Trained medical staff at these sites are able to provide information to clients about treatment, and to offer them access to services and supports.

They also help manage and attend to overdoses in safe environments, with trained staff.

Between January and March of this year, supervised consumption sites in Edmonton have attended to 154 overdoses. Similarly, 183 overdoses were attended to at the Calgary site, 510 in Lethbridge, and in March, 16 were attended to in Grande Prairie.

In all of these sites, there were zero fatal overdoses. I would hate to imagine what would have happened to those people if these sites didn’t exist.

I know that there are people worried about crime, increased traffic in their neighbourhoods, and effects on local businesses.

I empathize with these concerns and believe we need to be looking at offering more to these communities in order to protect both those who live and work near supervised consumption sites, and those who use them.

What we can’t do, what we can never do, is to turn our backs on those who need us most.

As Albertans, one of our core values is that we take care of each other. From flooding to wildfires, and everything in between, Albertans are strong and resilient because we look out for one another.

After all, what if it was your brother?

Heather Sweet is MLA for Edmonton-Manning and the NDP critic for mental health and addiction.

Editor’s note: From Oct. 1, 2018, to June 20, 2019, there were 24,680 visits to Red Deer’s overdose prevention site by 483 individuals. So far, staff have responded to 598 suspected opioid overdoses with only 48 requiring EMS.

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