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‘We’re criminalizing addicts’: Overdose prevention site advocates rally outside of N.S. legislature

Click to play video: 'Harm reduction advocates pressure N.S. government to open first overdose prevention site in Atlantic Canada'
Harm reduction advocates pressure N.S. government to open first overdose prevention site in Atlantic Canada
WATCH: Medical students lent their voice to a protest on Wednesday urging the Nova Scotia government to support opening Atlantic Canada's first overdose prevention site in Halifax. Alexa MacLean has more in this report – Mar 27, 2019

From medical students to those who have lost family members due to an overdose, dozens of people rallied through downtown Halifax streets on Wednesday, urging the government to open Atlantic Canada’s first overdose prevention site (OPS) in Halifax.

“I’ve done a lot of placements in family medicine in Spryfield as well as in Fairview and I realize that there’s a dire need for us to do something in addition to the harm reduction measures that are in place at the moment,” said Claire Stewart, a fourth-year medical student.

“We are doing really well now to get access to methadone, but we still have people who are dying.”

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Opioid-related overdose deaths have been identified as a public health crisis by the government of Canada. In Nova Scotia, there were 50 confirmed opioid toxicity deaths in Nova Scotia, as well as 10 probable ones.

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So far this year, there have been four probable opioid overdose deaths.

The federal government has authorized the opening of overdose prevention sites across the country as a method to prevent the number of deaths from rising.

The sites also offer a wide range of health care services and resources for people who may be in desperate need of support.

“Access to housing, access to detox, connections to other social services that can really address the psychosocial issues around addiction,” Stewart said, detailing some of those services.

WATCH: Nova Scotia delays approval of overdose prevention site

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia delays approval of overdose prevention site'
Nova Scotia delays approval of overdose prevention site

Of the four probable overdoses this year, one of those deaths was Terri-Lynn Burgess.

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“[On] January 1st, we lost Terri to an overdose and had to bury her on her birthday,” said Aliesja MacDonald, Burgess’s sister.

MacDonald believes an OPS may have saved her sister’s life.

“She would have had the resources, she would have had people that were able to deal with the overdose. We’re scared right now, we’re criminalizing addicts, this is a healthcare issue and we need sites like this to prevent more deaths,” MacDonald said.

The provincial government has made a wide range of investments in increasing access to opioid treatment and harm reduction, including free take-home naloxone kits.

According to the Department of Health and Wellness, there have been 121 reported overdose reversals since March 2017, when the province invested more than $1 million in funding to take action against the increase of illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in the province.

Advocates commend the province on the investments made so far and feel an OPS would provide further access to treatment and supports.

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“We need access to an OPS because we know that there are still people who are heavily using,” Stewart said. “The rates of HIV and Hepatitis C are still increasing astronomically.”

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According to the province, a decision on whether to open an OPS hasn’t been made yet.

“The department is reviewing options for an overdose prevention model and how it could fit into the province’s overall harm reduction approach,” Tracy Barron, a spokesperson for the province’s health department, wrote in an emailed statement.

“Once the department completes its work, recommendations will be provided to government to consider.”

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