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'A system of chaos': Province releases scathing report on supervised consumption sites

Last Updated Mar 6, 2020 at 6:07 am MDT

CALGARY (660 NEWS) — As the debate continues in Alberta between the need for harm reduction services and social disorder caused by them, a long-awaited report on supervised consumption sites from the provincial government has been released.

During an hour-long press conference at the McDougall Centre in Calgary, two ministers and two panel members detailed the findings in the report, which included some damning details.

“I have to say, I’m deeply troubled by some of the findings,” said Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan. “This report is a wake-up call for Alberta.”

The nearly 200-page long report details the SCS Review Committee’s investigations into the sites and results of extensive engagement, including the more the 1,800 people who attended in-person meetings and around 17,000 who took part in an online survey.

Engagement was done with a wide range of people, including residents, business owners, first responders and clients of the facilities.

There are seven safe consumption sites currently operating legally in Alberta: four in Edmonton, and one each in Calgary, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie. Several proposed sites remain on hold such as a mobile site based in Calgary’s Forest Lawn community and another for Medicine Hat.

After acknowledging the province is in the midst of a public health crisis, with more than 2,000 people died from opioid overdoses between January 2016 and December 2018, the report adds there are concerns from the community, and the eight-member panel was tasked with examining the socio-economic impacts of existing and proposed consumption sites.

Eight areas of concern were identified, including public safety, general social disorder, worries with access to treatment and concerns with site operation.

Overall, the panel noted there are strong views on either side of the debate, but predominately the feedback from neighbourhoods surrounding the sites was negative.

Lethbridge received the most responses in person and online, and except for Edmontonians, a majority of respondents reported a perception that the community was less safe as a result of the sites.

The report notes that needle debris was increasingly found around the sites since they opened — again except for Edmonton where people reported less debris — and a rise in “aggressive” or “bizarre” behaviour. On that note, police-reported crime was on the rise around the majority of the Alberta sites, including a nearly 19 per cent increase in calls for service in the 250-metre radius surrounding Calgary’s site at the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre.

“What we see is a system of chaos,” added Luan. “Chaos for addicts who desperately need help getting well and chaos for communities around the site. Now it’s our government’s job to carefully study the feedback provided and determine how we will address the concerns of Albertans.”

READ MORE: More officers being moved into District 1 to deal with supervised consumption site

A major problem brought up during the presentation was a lack of consultation from the previous NDP government on where to put the sites, with some businesses indicating they received no prior notification.

The report said to gain a Criminal Code exemption allowing the sites, consultation is needed from a broad range of people in the community, but the committee heard numerous times that this was not carried out sufficiently.

Next, record-keeping from staff in the facilities was criticized due to a lack of standardization, with a specific concern related to the use of the term “overdose reversal.”

“In many cases, adverse events — even if non-life threatening or minor — are reported as overdoses,” said committee vice-chair Dr. Geri Bemister-Williams. “And the term reversal is used when the response is a simple administration of oxygen.

“This leaves the public with the inference that without these sites, thousands of people could fatally overdose or no longer be alive.”

Bemister-Williams said only rare cases required the use of naloxone to reverse an overdose, and even fewer required staff to call EMS.

However, she could not go into any specifics as to if these people would have died without the intervention.

“I’m saying that it’s inaccurate what we found.”

The latest Alberta Health Services report on the safe consumption site in Calgary shows 1,545 overdose reversals between October 30, 2017, and January 2020. In more detailed information, AHS Safeworks reported responding to 47 overdoses in January, with 46 requiring supplemental oxygen, 13 requiring naloxone and one also requiring an EMS response.

Further, there was some dispute around how many lives are saved overall.

“In some cases,” added Bemister-Williams. “Areas experienced between 100 to 400 per cent increase in fatalities around the site.”

To date, there have been no deaths inside an Alberta SCS, but the rates have gone up in the 500-metre radius surrounding them.

It is also noted that methamphetamine is a growing concern in the sites, and while they were initially intended to respond to harm caused by injection drugs, there’s more and more demand for consuming meth. This has resulted in the previously reported concerns around “bizarre” behaviour, as the drug can cause agitation, aggressiveness and frank psychosis. Still, the users are generally at less risk of dying from an overdose.

READ MORE: CPS Daylight Initiative results in 200 arrests related to meth

As crime rates have gone up around most of the sites, the committee noticed some issues around a seeming lack of enforcement — and that can account for the lower crime numbers in Edmonton.

“We did hear this from some community members, who suggested that they just decided not to call the police anymore,” said committee Chair Rod Knecht. “It is very difficult for the police in and around the supervised consumption sites, the fact that you’re almost damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

“They’re just taking a step back and saying okay, let these folks get to the supervised (consumption) sites. Unfortunately, one of the byproducts is drug traffickers know this is where the consumers are, and they will migrate to the area as well.”

In response to a question about a possible lack of enforcement, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said he was “shocked.”

“That’s one of the reasons why we’ll be taking this report to the police chiefs from across our province to ensure we have a consistent approach,” he said.

Schweitzer also mentioned a recent incident where a security guard was sprayed by the contents of a user’s needle at the site in Lethbridge.

Also, in the area of public safety, there was a problem around more needle debris being found in the areas surrounding the sites.

“In every community, residents noticed an increase in needle debris on public and private property,” said Bemister-Williams. “Several schools near the sites have implemented needle pickup committees, as children have been pricked by dirty needles in their communities.”

Concern was also brought up about so-called “party packs” being given to clients.

“This, in most cases, is a brown paper bag with supplies that includes clean needles, clean crack or methamphetamine pipes, and other supplies for safe ingestion that can be removed from the sites.”

She also said people saw more human feces in the areas around the sites.

In addition, residents were taking some matters into their own hands, such as by installing security measures like lights at their own expense.

But even beyond these issues, the province also uncovered another unsettling issue.

“Disturbing allegations of financial irregularities of ARCHES, who provide supervised consumption services in Lethbridge,” said Luan.

When pressed on this matter, Luan could not go into further detail and would only say that auditors are looking into the situation, and the investigation remains active. ARCHES also has not responded to a request for comment from 660 NEWS.

Even with the numerous concerns outline in the report, no conclusion will be made at this time as to the future of the sites — including if they will be closed or moved.

“I’m wide open looking at all the evidence and options,” said Luan. “I will never be light to say our goal has to be very focused, laser-focused, on how we are helping people get well. That is something I feel like the previous government completely failed on.”

Luan and Schweitzer said they have been putting more funding into treatment and detox, along with establishing more drug treatment courts as a way to break the cycle of addiction. For example, Budget 2020 said $40 million would be put into opioid treatment. However, the budget does not include any specific mentions around where that money will go.

Nevertheless, even if the sites stay open for now, the findings of the panel and feelings around the impact are plainly clear.

“The current approach has not addressed major concerns about crime, social disorder, needle debris and drug paraphernalia,” said Bemister-Williams. “The final decisions lie with government.”