No update to province’s plan for supervised consumption sites one year after damning report released

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The provincial government refuses to say what its plans are for supervised consumption sites in Alberta one year after releasing a damning report — with disputed findings — that was expected to guide decision-making.

Last March, provincial ministers and members of a UCP-appointed panel presented the report, which detailed a “system of chaos” related to the socio-economic impact of existing sites.

It cited issues such as deteriorating public safety, increased needle debris and alleged inaccuracies about overdose data. The study did not take into account the merits of harm reduction services.

Shortly after its release, academics, harm reduction advocates and scientists from across Canada cited “grave concerns” about its “poor methodological quality, lack of transparency and biased presentation of results.” They asked the province to retract the 200-page report.

The UCP, however, has shown unwavering support in its findings.

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Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, called the report a “wake-up call for the province” last March.

Despite this statement, the future of existing and future sites remain in limbo.

Jordan Melnychuk, who has been a client at both the Edmonton and Calgary drug-use sites, said the uncertainty surrounding harm reduction services in the province has taken him on an “emotional roller coaster.”

“I think there has been some really great advancements in the province over the last few years, but there’s also been a huge resistance with our current government for a lot of those services,” said Melnychuk.

He referenced the UCP’s aversion to supervised consumption services (SCS) and the government’s initial plan to shutter the injectable agonist treatment program — a decision that has since been reversed.

“I don’t understand why those were issues that needed to be brought up in the first place,” he said. “These were helping people, seriously affecting people who needed it the most.”

In response to a detailed list of questions on Thursday, including one asking for an update on the province’s review of the report, Luan’s press secretary Kassandra Kitz said they have “answered these same questions on several occasions” and “have no updates at this time.”

Despite repeated questions by Postmedia throughout the past year, Luan’s office has declined on numerous occasions to offer any clarity.

On April 3 and June 25, 2020, Kitz told Postmedia the government had made no decisions regarding the fate of supervised consumption sites because they were focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Then, on July 16 and Sept. 24 last year, Kitz said they were in the process of reviewing each site on a “city-by-city basis” based on “local needs and realities,” but no further decisions had been made.

Kitz again stated on Nov. 24 there were no new developments, and, on Jan. 7 this year, she declined to provide any update on the government’s plans.

The Government of Alberta report on safe consumption sites in Alberta is shown in front of the Safeworks site in downtown Calgary on Thursday, March 5, 2020. Illustration by Jim Wells/Postmedia
The Government of Alberta report on safe consumption sites in Alberta is shown in front of the Safeworks site in downtown Calgary on Thursday, March 5, 2020. Illustration by Jim Wells/Postmedia

  1. The Safeworks injection site at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre is shown on Feb. 15, 2019.

    U of C study finds supervised consumption sites could save Alberta government money

  2. The provincial report on safe consumption sites in Alberta is shown in front of the Safeworks site in downtown Calgary on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

    Criminologist raises further concerns related to the UCP-approved supervised drug-use sites report

  3. The Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in the Beltline houses Calgary's only supervised consumption site.

    ‘I should be dead right now’: Safe consumption site was lifesaver for MRU student

Melnychuk recalled his first time using under supervision at a site in Vancouver in 2016. He said it was “mind-blowing” to be in a space that made him feel safe and comfortable.

The numerous sites he has visited over the years have given him a kind of community, where he and others feel free to share intimate details about their lives, access wrap-around supports and plan for a future with or without substances, he added.

Supervised consumption sites help significantly reduce stigma and allow clients to seek recovery treatments, should they choose to, on their own terms, according to Melnychuk.

“I think there is a freedom to that that is really necessary to even start to think about what you want to do with your life,” he said. “It gives you a sense of freedom.”

The 28-year-old said he’s seen staff reverse many overdoses at these sites and his best friend has been saved “multiple times.” He would like to see additional sites established to support current substance users and curb spiking overdose fatalities.

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Despite the proven merit of harm reduction services, such as supervised injection sites, Premier Jason Kenney and his government have presented sharp criticisms.

Kenney said, last July, it is not “compassionate to facilitate addiction” and has questioned whether the “harm reduction obsession is really successful.”

In advance of the report being made public, he said the province might move or shutter some supervised consumption services because of its findings.

The UCP-commissioned review also putsplans for a mobile safe drug-consumption site in Forest Lawn and fixed sites in Red Deer and Medicine Hat on hold.

Months after the controversial report was released, documents obtained by Postmedia showed members of the supervised consumption services review committee were repeatedly warned about “excessive” and “unreasonable” spending.

At that time last August, Luan said he “asked for a review into how this process unfolded.”

Kitz also declined to comment on the status of that review.

Funding remains in place for five supervised drug-use and three overdose-prevention sites in Alberta.

Unrelated to the report, the UCP pulled funding for Lethbridge’s sole supervised drug-use site in July following an audit that found more than $1.6 million in unaccounted funds. Lethbridge Police later found records for the “unaccounted funds” but the UCP said it won’t reverse its decision.

The site in southern Alberta was the busiest in North America.

alsmith@postmedia.com

Twitter: alanna_smithh

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