'A system of chaos for addicts and communities' Province releases report on supervised consumption sites
Published Thursday, March 5, 2020 6:30AM MST Last Updated Thursday, March 5, 2020 7:33PM MST
CALGARY -- The Alberta government has released its long anticipated report on the impacts of supervised drug consumption sites across the province.
An eight-person independent review panel was appointed by the United Conservative Party last summer to look at the social and economic effects of these sites, includes a look at crime and safety.
According to the province, panel members received feedback over the past eight months from site operators, stakeholder and nearby businesses.
"What we heard was a wake-up call, from increases to social disorder," said Health and Addictions Minister Jason Luan. "What we see is a system of chaos for addicts and communities around the sites."
Key findings from the report included:
- Concerns regarding the increase in needle debris and deteriorating public safety near supervised consumption sites
- Increased death rates in the vicinty of the sites
- Increase in calls to EMS in the vicinity of the sites
- Referrals to detoxification and treatment resources were not a focus
- Inconsistent and inaccurate classification of overdose reversals
- Substantial increases in non-opioid substance resulting in aggressive behaviour
However, an analysis of harm reduction evidence was left out of this report, prompting concern from health officials. Harm reduction advocates have noted a 100 per cent effectiveness of preventing overdoses at all seven of Alberta’s safe drug consumption sites.
At the same time the province was releasing its report at Calgary’s McDougall Centre, clients were gathered outside the Safeworks supervised consumption site on 13 Avenue S.W.
Meth and fentanyl user Violet McQuarrie says the supervised consumption site has saved her life on nine separate occasions. McQuarrie disputes several of the report's findings, and says shutting down the Safeworks site won’t make drug users leave the area.
"You’re going to see more of the rigs in the leftovers and the syringes, stuff like that left out on the streets, again, in school yards. You know, you don't see that now. We are actually getting paid to pick up our syringes, 50 cents, or whatever, you know, that gives us incentive to come back here, turn them in and get our own little pocket money," says McQuarrie. "But if you take that away from us, you're going to end up seeing a lot more garbage, a lot more people using on the streets, a lot more people passing out in doorways, and using facilities that are not supposed to, you know, public washrooms and such."
Staff at the Safeworks Harm Reduction Program site at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in Calgary's Beltline have responded to 1,545 overdoses since it first opened in October 2017.
The Safeworks site had 1,270 unique visits in January. The location has been visited more than 130,000 times since it opened its doors.
There have been no deaths reported at any Alberta supervised consumption site.
A 2019 report from the Alberta Community Council on HIV (ACCH) also found drug consumption sites reduce costs in the long run because more health issues could be tackled before they develop into more expensive problems. In their report, ACCH found a savings of five dollars for every dollar spent.
Premier Kenney remains adamant that facilitating addictions is not the right approach for ensuring people recover in the long run
Prior to the release of the report, Kenney noted that this report will show the damaging social impact of supervised drug consumption sites on Alberta communities without a measurable improvement of health. As a result, Kenney says some of these sites could be closed or relocated in the future.
Sarah Adams, a fentyanyl and meth user that CTV News spoke with outside the Safeworks site thinks the premier doesn’t understand the reality of drug addiction, and says she believes he doesn’t actually want to understand it.
"I think he is listening to people that are being ignorant and you know, they're doing it out of fear because they're scared. And it isn’t reflecting reality, people are addicted to drugs. And it's not because they're all bad people," says Adams. "It is because people are hurting, or using it to, like, numb the pain and things like that. It's a real thing – just like alcoholism."
The members of the independent review panel include:
- Rod Knecht, chair
- Prof. Geri Iininaatoáákii Bemister-Williams, vice-chair
- Dr. Charl Els, addiction specialist and occupational physician
- Joan Hollihan, mother who lost her 16-year-old son to fentanyl poisoning
- Dr. Rob Tanguay, lead for the Alberta Opioid Dependency Treatment Virtual Training program
- Dr. Ray Baker, retired B.C. physician specializing in recovery-oriented continuing care
- Paul Maxim, former economics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University
- Steve Cormack, Red Deer real estate associate and 24-year RCMP member
Criticism over 'non-partisan' UCP panels
There has been ongoing criticism of the Kenney government as to whether or not the province’s review panels are in fact independent.
Government staff had a hand in crafting a May 2019 speech and newspaper editorial for Janice MacKinnon, the chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel into Alberta’s Finances, according to internal emails.
Emails between government staff and MacKinnon show a back-and-forth on the writing of her May 7, 2019 speech announcing the panel and an editorial published four days later in the Calgary Herald.
The provincial government said it's not unusual for a panel member to receive administrative support.
As for the UCP’s panel on safe consumption drug sites, Kenney has been criticized for not being open to looking at health impacts.
Back at the Safeworks site, McQuarrie thinks the government had it’s mind made up before embarking on the review.
"Come look through my eyes. Okay, you're ‘up there’. You're away from us. You see what people tell you what you perceive, but you don't actually see it," she says. "You know, we're doing good out here. This is great for us so we have a safe place. You know, we don't want to die on a street corner.”
The panel does not include a member from south of Calgary, despite Lethbridge having reportedly the busiest supervised drug consumption site in North America.
Others critics say Kenney has been notably biased and inflammatory after a recent post on Twitter where he referred to safe consumption locations as "NDP drug sites.