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Debate over supervised consumption sites ramps up across Alberta

WATCH ABOVE: Last month, the UCP government announced plans to hold off on funding for proposed supervised consumption sites. That has some people asking questions about how the sites are funded and regulated. Quinn Campbell reports.

Supervised consumption sites have been a hot topic in Alberta long before the last provincial election.

The UCP government’s plan to hold off on funding for new proposed sites has brought the conversation about the sites’ socioeconomic impact back into the spotlight.

Health Canada describes the sites as “a long-term, comprehensive approach to addressing the harms associated with problematic substance use.”

According to Health Canada’s website, there are 39 supervised consumption sites that are exempt from the Criminal Code of Canada in order to operate.

Ontario has 19, British Columbia operates nine, Quebec has four and there are seven in the province of Alberta.

Edmonton has four, with one each in Calgary, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie.

READ MORE: Neighbours of Edmonton’s newest supervised consumption site hope it means fewer needles on street

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Alberta also has some overdose prevention sites (OPS), which are similar to supervised consumption sites – however OPS are a temporary facilities rather than a permanent site.

According to Alberta Health Services, an OPS can be used in response to an urgent public health need within a community. An OPS is currently operating in Red Deer, and another just recently opened at the Drumheller federal prison.

Overdoses and overdose deaths in federal prisons have more than doubled in recent years, according to a recent report by Corrections Canada. Drumheller Institution, located more than an hour from Calgary, often has the highest overdose rates.

READ MORE: Alberta federal prison opened an overdose prevention site for inmates in Drumheller

Many Albertans have had misconceptions or unanswered questions about supervised consumption sites: Who regulates them? Is each site run differently? Will the sites remain if funding is cut?

Jason Luan, Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, said there has been a lot of confusion as to the provincial government’s role in determining how the sites operate.

“It’s the federal government [who] issue the licence, so we really, as the provincial government, have no control over that,” he said. “The only role we play is we provide funding to the agency who provides the service.”

When it comes to regulations and the standards of operation, that’s all done federally.

“That’s who regulates us and checks in and makes sure that we’re adhering to our policy and procedure… the federal government and Health Canada,” said Jill Manning, the managing director at ARCHES in Lethbridge.

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ARCHES operates the supervised consumption site in Lethbridge. The number of visits to the site are staggering and are believed to be some of the highest numbers of site visits in the world.

“We are averaging about 670 visits per day,” said Manning. “That’s not unique individuals accessing services, it’s how many total visits we have in a day.”

Manning said that over the past six months, the site has been averaging about 20,000 visits per month.

According to Sgt. Robin Klassen with the Lethbridge Police Service’s downtown policing unit, there is no denying these sites draw more crime to the area.

“When it comes to the population in the downtown, and the people that are using drugs and are trying to feed their habit, they are going to resort to that easy crime,” she said. “That includes car prowling, shoplifting, theft — so we are going to see an increase in those types of crimes in that area.”

Klassen said there is no “buffer zone” around the sites, and the law is still enforced.

“We don’t want people using in the community, we want them to be using at the site,” she said. “So we are still charging people with possession, and possession with the purpose [of trafficking].

“We don’t want people selling around the site either.”

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Klassen added that the laws around drug use are enforced everywhere except the exempted area inside the sites.

“There is no free zone around site,” she said. “That is a myth that there was an area around the site we don’t enforce.

“As the police we enforce everywhere except in the site.”

READ MORE: Spike in crime around Calgary supervised consumption site leads to questions about resources

Consumption site usage is rising across the country. The following data is from Health Canada:

Visits to supervised consumption sites (SCS) by province, since 2016, based on data available to Health Canada as of June 2019:

British Columbia – 158,733

Alberta – 171,547

Ontario – 70,583

Quebec – 33,033

SCS located across Canada received more than 433,000 visits and reversed more than 3,900 overdoses without a single death at a site.

The provincial breakdown of the reported number of overdoses reversed within an SCS, since 2016:

British Columbia – 809

Alberta – 1,972

Ontario – 1,042

Quebec – 88

**Note that these numbers apply only to overdoses that occurred at the site, not all overdoses reported in the jurisdiction.

The Alberta government says community concerns and a rapidly growing addictions crisis is why it has called for a review before moving forward with pending supervised consumption sites, like ones planned for Red Deer and Medicine Hat. The review has yet to begin, but Luan said the preliminary work is underway.

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“We are still in the process right now of consulting with experts and the ministry, trying to set up the process.”

READ MORE: Amid opioid crisis, supervised consumption sites face uncertain future in Alberta, Ontario

The UCP said during its election campaign that it was committed to reviewing supervised consumption site services, both pending and existing.

“We’re going to do a review with a robust socioeconomic assessment for those, particularly for the impact to the community and the businesses and residents,” Luan said.

Manning told Global News that she isn’t overly concerned about the review, adding she believes the numbers back up the need for supervised consumption sites in Alberta communities.

READ MORE: Families call on Alberta government to restore funding for supervised consumption sites

She added that while some may believe the services are too costly, she believes the service reduces costs in other areas that the government is responsible for funding.

“We know that supervised consumption saves money from the overall general health-care expenses, because it reduces wait times in emergency and it reduces the calls to EMS,” Manning said.

A timeline for the provincial review has yet to be released.

— With files from Rachel Browne, Global News