A newly released report suggests the social impacts of supervised drug consumption sites in Alberta include increased needle debris and a growing risk to public safety in surrounding neighbourhoods.
The report, compiled by the Alberta government’s Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee, was released on Thursday.
Associate health minister Jason Luan called the report a “wake-up call” and says the government will use it to make decisions about the sites on a city-by-city basis.
According to the report, more than 19,000 Albertans provided feedback during the panel’s review.
Luan also said the eight-member review panel heard allegations of “financial irregularities” at ARCHES, the non-profit agency overseeing the supervised consumption site in Lethbridge.
He said auditors went to ARCHES this week to collect documentation and he’ll have more to say in the coming weeks.
There are currently seven sites in Alberta – in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge – with proposals for one each in Red Deer and Medicine Hat and another one in Calgary.
The site in Calgary has not recorded a death within the supervised consumption site, but staff have responded to over 1,500 overdoses.
According to the report, opioid-related deaths have increased between 100 and 400 per cent in the 500-metre radius around the sites.
Calgary’s site had more than 130,000 visits since it opened in October 2017.
However, some health officials said the report is biased and doesn’t include any of the science behind supervised consumption sites.
That data was deemed outside the scope of the report.
“I think they were very clear from the beginning that they didn’t want to hear about the scientific evidence or the health evidence,” said family physician Dr Bonnie Larson. “They wanted to hear about the socio-economic impact, they wanted to hear from the business owners and not the health-care providers.”
Larson has worked in the supervised consumption site in Calgary and said that the sites are effective in preventing overdose deaths.
“These things are not going to go away if we withdraw support,” Larson said.
In a statement, the Edmonton Police Service said it hasn’t noticed an increase in crime or disorder and that these sites – and the staff there – are saving lives.
“The EPS will continue to work in partnership with the supervised consumption site agencies to ensure that the needs of the facility users are balanced with the actions necessary to keep the surrounding areas safe from harm,” EPS said in a Thursday statement.
“Our observations and data indicate that these facilities, collectively, have not increased crime or disorder in the surrounding community. We acknowledge the fact that lives have been saved by the employees and volunteers working within.
“Intervention (including harm reduction) must be used in conjunction with prevention, recovery and treatment; each of these need to be part of the equation. While there is value in the services provided, far more needs to be done to strengthen the broader health system’s ability to provide additional treatment and a continuum of care to those in need of service.
“With these improvements and various levels of government and associated agencies working together, we can do more than reverse overdose deaths – we can begin to assist vulnerable individuals in regaining control over their lives.”
The government formed the panel last summer to look at how the sites impact crime rates, social order, property values and businesses.
“Finally someone is speaking up,” said Sandy Pon, a board member on the Chinatown Transformation Collaborative Society of Edmonton.
“I’m glad this report came out. It’s very similar to what the communities have been saying but no one has ever brought it to the attention of the public.”
Pon said the community would support initiatives that work and she’s waiting to see what the province decides.
“I hope they don’t expand, that’s the thing. If there’s good coming out of it, we concur. The neighbourhood, the residents and businesses will concur to keep certain things open and bring a certain level of services to those individuals.
“But if it’s not happening, it’s not working, it’s actually increasing problems, then they ought to be shut down or reallocated,” Pon said.
“We’ve always wanted a drug recovery component to it… but we didn’t see that being implemented.”
In Calgary, concerns mirrored those of other residents and business owners in the province.
Shelf Life Books, which is located very close to the Sheldon M. Chumir Centre, said safety of their staff is their biggest concern as they have experienced incidents with users of the supervised consumption site.
“We’re saving their lives and we’re very much in favour of that and we understand the importance, but I’m hoping that this report will lead to some kind of continuity,” said Shelf Life Books’ founder Will Lawrence. “Some of these issues present the area as maybe a bit of a downtrodden or dangerous area, and its not really.”
Further down the street, David Hennigar said he is concerned for the tenants in the apartment building he manages.
He said the alleyway behind the apartment has several nooks and corners that have become hotbeds for drug use, smash-and-grabs and criminal activity.
While the turnover rate in his building is low, Hennigar said it is a challenge to find new tenants when people move out.
“Anytime we have to fill a unit, it’s always a concern. You don’t want to mislead people about the neighbourhood they’re moving into,” Hennigar said. “But you’re also worried about the stigma associated with downtown and all the things associated with being this close to the safe injection site.”
Listen: Assistant professor with the Cummings School of Medicine discusses review report on Alberta’s supervised consumption sites
Alberta Health Services said it understands community concerns raised about the Sheldon M. Chumir site
“AHS will ensure clients continue to receive services and supports at the Chumir site, including access to supports such as addiction and mental health or referral to opioid dependency treatment.
“Opioid use is a serious concern in Alberta, and AHS is continuing to take action to improve and expand access to medication-assisted therapy for opioid dependency in partnership with prescribers, government, and other health service partners.”
In a statement, AHS said it has increased access to addiction services and social supports like housing, financing and employment.
“We want more Albertans to receive the care they need in their own communities and help save lives.”
— With files from Emily Mertz, Adam MacVicar, Global News