Supervised consumption sites are part of evidence-based services in the province that are aimed at providing treatment, reducing harm and supporting prevention of addictions.
The sites provide a place where people can use drugs that were pre-obtained in an environment that is hygienic and monitored to reduce the harm from such use.
Alberta Health Services says clients receive medical care and are connected to recovery-oriented services. These sites are part of what the AHS calls the continuum of care and can support those who are ready for change.
Seven such sites operate in Alberta including a mobile overdose prevention service unit here located in front of the Lethbridge Shelter and Resource Centre.
This mobile unit was opened after the previous site was shut down by the provincial government in September of 2020.
In Lethbridge, the former SCS is a polarizing subject among residents. In a recent interview with the Herald, Lori Hatfield of Moms Stop the Harm said the closure of the supervised consumption site pushed more individuals out on the street to use drugs and the provincial government hasn’t helped to address the issues.
“We had a place for people to go use their drugs safely. And they weren’t happy about that either. And we told them, once you get rid of the supervised consumption site, you’re pushing people back out on the street to use. Where are they going to go? They have nowhere to live, they’re going to use on the street. So the community and our and our municipal government have created this mess, as well. Well, maybe not created it, but they haven’t helped to aggress to a more positive outcome,” said Hatfield in that interview.
However, at least one local politician has expressed community concerns about such facilities.
In another interview, as previously reported, councillor Jenn Schmidt-Rempel said “I think when we look at Lethbridge as a whole, we’ve got two forms of trauma going on. We’ve certainly got the people that are faced with addictions that are obviously suffering some kind of trauma that have led them down this path.
“But we’ve also got a community that’s been traumatized by the supervised consumption site, which is why getting services in when we’re looking at rezoning is increasingly difficult because people are scared that we’re going to start seeing what happened with the supervised consumption site.”
In the spring of 2019, the Government of Alberta froze funding for new supervised consumption services in the province.
A review of the socio-economic impact of sites was conducted by the province with data being collected and analysed by a committee which was compiled into a report that summarizes the findings.
This report of supervised consumption sites findings was released to the public in March 2020.
Titled “Impact: A socio-economic review of supervised consumption sites in Alberta,” the report states during the time of collecting data and information the review committee was made aware of many concerns from residents.
“During the public consultations, the review committee was made aware of numerous concerns of residents living near the respective sites,” says the report.
The report notes Alberta Health shared with the review committee many concerning incidents that had taken place at the consumption sites.
“Alberta Health advised the committee that approximately 6,541 adverse events had been responded to at these sites since they began operating in Alberta in October 2017.”
The review committee was made up of seven members who specialized in population economics, social demography, research ethics, addiction and recovery, harm reduction, First Nations health, mental health, trauma, pain management, law enforcement, crime reduction and justice, lived experience, business, and real estate.
The review committee membership was listed in the report as follows; Rod Knecht as chair, Dr. Geri Bemister-Williams, vice-chair Dr. Charl Els, Joan Hollihan, Dr. Rob Tanguay, Dr. Ray Baker, Dr. Paul Maxim, and Steve Cormack.
The report cited Lethbridge’s SCS as being one of the most used sites worldwide.
“Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Lethbridge SCS site may be one of the most used, not only in Canada, but worldwide. Whether or not this is the case, it is evident that Lethbridge has a significant opioid use problem,” says the report.
In 2018, the number of deaths, mostly due to fentanyl poisoning (overdose), was 25 for a rate of about 25.1 per 100,000 population for the year.
“In the first six months of 2019, the municipality experienced 11 deaths. This is higher than the provincial average of 17.1 per 100,000 population for the same period.”
Lethbridge SCS operator ARCHES reported to Lethbridge’s then city council that from the time the site opened in February of 2018 through July 2019, that 268,283 visits had occurred. ARCHES also reported to city council in August of 2019 that 1,376 community members had accessed the SCS.
“ARCHES reports that it distributes somewhere between 13,000 to 15,000 needles per month. Presenting before the review committee, one representative reported a number that is approximately two to three times higher, indicating that 37,000 syringes are distributed per month from ARCHES,” says the report.
The review committee, upon talking with multiple stakeholders, said it was their impression the Lethbridge SCS site might be the most problematic in the province with suspicious activity.
“The behaviour of its employees, an apparent lack of accountability, alleged occurrences of flagrant and open criminal activity around the site, its isolation from the greater community and several questions about the integrity of how data, are submitted.”
Lethbridge residents had also voiced their concerns to the review committee about the volume of discarded needles all over public areas. During the summer of 2019, local media reported the case of a six-year-old who had been injured by a discarded used needle.
Upon review, the committee was informed by ARCHES its employment at the time was 174 workers on site. It was reported the approximate users per day would be 130 to 135. The committee was informed by an ARCHES worker a little under half of the workers were in drug recovery.
“An ARCHES worker told the committee that approximately 40 per cent of workers at the SCS are ‘addicts in recovery’ themselves. There was no apparent concern about the associated occupational risk or relapse risk to those workers in recovery.”
A Lethbridge officer informed the review committee that staff members at the SCS attempted to destroy video evidence.
“They had a pregnant lady have (a) miscarriage immediately after using their facility. They became offended when I asked what their procedures were for pregnant women and filed a formal complaint,” the officer says in the report
It was mentioned in the report, in the period between March 1, 2018, and February 28, 2019, Lethbridge Police Services had received 424 calls for service in the area immediately surrounding the SCS.
ARCHES had also reported to city council that from 2017 to 2019 needle distribution had decreased by 70 per cent; however this claim was considered questionable in the report.
“This 2019 report does not provide the number of needles distributed in either 2017 or 2019. Nor is there any explanation as to why distributing 70 per cent fewer needles is acceptable now but was not in 2017,” says the report.
A Lethbridge resident shared with the review committee the experience they had in Foothills detox, with ARCHES workers making an appearance within the program’s mandatory groups meetings telling where the SCS was located and offering recovering addicts transportation to get to the SCS.
“I felt extremely hopeless. Was there even a reason for me to get clean? I ended up calling my mom crying, how desperately I wanted to get out of detox. I was feeling extremely triggered. I felt resentful towards Foothills detox for letting these ladies in. I thought they were supposed to help me, not give up on me,” the resident says in the report.
Among concerns of the review committee was the transparency and accountability regarding overdoes.
Reports of clients of consumption sites leaving with increased aggressive and erratic behavior was also something the review committee had heard. The report said that everywhere except in Edmonton crime rates had increased immediately after visits.
Residents complained of the lack of policing in and near the sites.
“In contrast to areas beyond the immediate vicinity of the sites, residents complained about the lack of response to calls for service by police. Site users and operators typically believed that the Section 56.1 exemption allowed for a no-go zone for police within the proximity of the site. Evidence suggested a level of “de-policing” near some sites,” says the report.
A report by the Auditor General of Alberta in March 2022 said ARCHES received grant funding of $18.3 million from September 2017 until August of 2020. “In March 2020, upon concerns of potential expenditure irregularities at ARCHES, the department initiated an expenditure review. The review concluded the grant funds were unaccounted for and lacked appropriate documentation. This resulted in the department terminating its grant agreement with ARCHES,” says the report.
Among the report’s findings, it concluded that the provincial department of health didn’t ensure that financial information was certified by ARCHES and that it didn’t maintain sufficient documentation to evidence that ti adequately monitored grant reporting information from ARCHES.
By Steffanie Costigan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Sep 08, 2023