FOM welcomes Lethbridge City Council’s common-sense vote on continued provincial funding for SCS
On Monday, August 19, Lethbridge city council voted on a motion to request the provincial government halt funding to the city’s supervised consumption site, subject to the findings of the government’s forthcoming “socioeconomic” review. The motion, introduced by Councillor Blaine Hyggen, was defeated Monday evening by a vote of 6-3.
“Supervised consumption services are an integral part of a harm reduction strategy — they connect vulnerable Albertans to essential services that will ultimately give them a path to healthier lives,” said Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare. “We’re glad to see that Lethbridge city council had the common sense to vote down a motion that would have shown a callous disregard for the lives of vulnerable Albertans.”
The governmental review, slated to begin this September, was initially planned to impact only proposed SCSs, but the UCP has since announced it will now target existing sites too.
From January to March of this year, Alberta's supervised consumption sites saw 94,614 visits and 863 overdose reversals. The findings of this review could impact the funding of supervised consumption sites across the province, eliminating a critical harm reduction service, and the first point of contact with our health care system for thousands of Albertans who are struggling with addictions.
This review represents an unnecessary and time-consuming delay to the expansion of a critical life-saving service, as the evidence supporting the effectiveness of harm reduction strategies and safe consumption services is already exhaustive. “If the government is prepared to undertake a socioeconomic analysis that serves to look at the differences between groups of people relating to their social class and financial situation, they better be ready to invest in services that will meaningfully address social inequities and the resulting social determinants of health,” said Azocar.
Supervised consumption sites are subject to a rigorous approval process. Organizations seeking to operate a SCS must meet the standards set out by the federal government in order to obtain exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, including consulting with the community, identifying feedback and concerns, and developing a mitigation strategy to address those concerns.
Lethbridge’s supervised consumption site, run by the not-for-profit organization ARCHES, is the busiest site in North America, with an average of 663 visits per day. Between opening their SCS on February 28, 2018, and July 30, 2019, ARCHES has seen 267,754 total visits, and responded to 2,531 medical emergencies.
Lethbridge itself has been deeply impacted by the ongoing overdose crisis, and has the second highest per capita rate of fentanyl deaths in Alberta. With a shortage of treatment beds and supportive housing units available in the city, ARCHES represents a centralized hub where vulnerable residents can receive care and access to social services. Beyond the direct life-saving work that SCSs do, they also serve as an important point of contact to the health care system and other social services, as the people who access harm reduction programs are often highly marginalized and without access to many mainstream health resources. Since opening, ARCHES has made 9,000 referrals to services including treatment, detox, housing, health-care services, mental-health services and addictions counselling.
The resolution also contained a motion for Lethbridge city council to “request the Provincial Government direct ARCHES to prohibit the distributed needles from leaving the Supervised Consumption Site,” under the premise that the “presence of needle debris continues to concern many citizens of Lethbridge.” Notably however, ARCHES has maintained a clean-needle distribution program since 2001, and has reported that needle distribution is down 70% in the area since the opening of the SCS, while the rate of needles returned for safe disposal is up 83%. Further, as part of its mitigation strategy, the organization operates a needle pickup service, with a hotline that citizens can call 7 days a week.
“Supervised consumption sites are the best way to prevent overdoses, and to connect people with the supports they need, as evidence has shown time and again,” said Azocar. “The overdose rates in Lethbridge and elsewhere in Alberta represent an urgent public health issue, and the continued funding of SCSs is critical in protecting Albertans from preventable harm. Lethbridge city council made the right choice in defeating this motion.”
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