A southern Alberta city in the throes of an opioid crisis is the latest community planning to seek approval for a safe consumption site for drug users.
A coalition of community groups plans to submit a request at the end of July for one of the federally regulated sites in Lethbridge.
The facility would cost $1.5 million a year and would provide a legal consumption site where health professionals could oversee the use of drugs and ensure safety for users.
“It will reduce the number of overdose deaths and fatalities we are experiencing in our province, which is really at crisis levels. We are losing more people currently to overdose fatalities than we ever did at the height of the HIV epidemic,” said Jill Manning, managing director of the AIDS Outreach Community Harm Reduction Education Support Society (ARCHES).
Manning said it’s estimated that there are about 3,000 individuals who do drugs in Lethbridge, which has a population of almost 93,000, and double that number in southwestern Alberta.
“Our overdose rates are higher in the south zone, so per capita the rates of overdose that we’re experiencing within our emergency medical systems are higher than anywhere else.”
Manning said the overdose rate is 24 per cent higher than anywhere else in Alberta. The most popular drugs are methamphetamine and opioids, most notably fentanyl.
The region borders the Blood reserve where a state of emergency was implemented because of fentanyl deaths.
Overdose deaths in southern Alberta stood at about one a day last year, and the number is higher so far this year, Manning said.
“If that continues _ as we expect that it will _ we’ll be at rates of losing two or more people per day.”
Dr. Karin Goodison, the area’s medical health officer, said Alberta has lagged behind other provinces such as British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec when it comes to harm reduction.
She said there is data to indicate that safe injection sites can improve health care for those in need.
“People that use drugs may not access mainstream health services, so what’s really important is that they trust harm reduction agencies,” Goodison said.
Lethbridge police hope a site would help reduce the amount of public drug use and the number of discarded needles. Police would not be able to prosecute users inside the facility.
“The federal government gives an exemption. That’s how these sites are able to operate,” said Insp. Tom Ascroft.
“The provincial government funds them, but you need a federal exemption because otherwise it’s against the law.”
Calgary and Edmonton have also applied for safe consumption sites.