They waited for the sun to go down before setting up a small tent that will serve as an unapproved and unauthorized space for people with addictions to consume drugs in downtown Lethbridge, Alta.
The unsanctioned, supervised consumption site was set up just days after the province revealed this city of 100,000 has the highest per-capita rate of opioid overdose deaths in Alberta — and three weeks after the government pulled funding for ARCHES, a non-profit society that had been operating Canada’s busiest injection site, which saw on average 500 visits a day.
On Friday night, four people came to the tent to inject drugs and no one overdosed. There were no police interactions, and organizers said they were happy with the results, considering they didn’t tell anyone in the community about their plans.
The pop-up site is being run by the newly formed Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society. Tim Slaney, a former employee at ARCHES, is one of the people spearheading the initiative.
The tent is located in Galt Gardens, a popular park in downtown Lethbridge that Slaney said has become the epicentre of the community’s opioid crisis.
“We’ve arranged to have a number of volunteers waiting on standby with naloxone,” he said, referring to a medication that is used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose.
Slaney said the provincial government’s decision to close ARCHES was irresponsible.
He said he and other harm-reduction advocates “could not sit by and watch our friends, loved ones and neighbours overdose and die.”
“It can only be described as irresponsible and honestly a dereliction of Alberta’s responsibility to the citizens of Lethbridge,” he said.
“The government has given us no choice to come out here and do this.”
Province calls site illegal, expects police to take action
The province issued a statement to CBC News from Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addiction, saying the site is illegal and is in contravention of the Criminal Code of Canada.
“We expect the City of Lethbridge and the Lethbridge Police Service to enforce the law,” the statement read.
The minister also defended a mobile service that has replaced the ARCHES facility.
“Alberta’s government provides a legal, sanctioned overdose prevention site a block away from this location, with adequate capacity for the community.”
Calgary physician Dr. Bonnie Larson is not a member of the new group but has been advising Slaney and his team.
“I think nobody would really do this if it weren’t absolutely dire, the situation in Lethbridge,” Larson said.
The plan is to set up the temporary site each evening, offer services for a couple of hours, pack up the tent and then do it all again the next night. The tent will have enough space for two people to inject drugs at a time.
Larson said it’s a risk for everyone since the site does not have a special Health Canada exemption similar to what’s been given to accredited supervised consumption sites across the country.
“It happens to be that our drug policy is that they can be arrested for possession and for accompanying folks in order to save their lives,” she said.
Slaney said the number of overdose deaths in the city is shocking. Twenty-one people died between April 1 and June 30 — and it happened while ARCHES was still operating.
The per-capita rate through the first six months of 2020 is 42.4 deaths per 100,000 people, one and a half times the provincial rate and almost double the rate in Calgary.
The provincial government said the COVID-19 pandemic fuelled the increase as more people were isolating and restricted from accessing services and supports.
ARCHES, located about 500 metres from the new pop-up injection site, had 13 injection booths and two inhalation rooms.
Funding pulled after financial audit
The province pulled funding to the organization after a financial audit found evidence of mismanagement and misuse of government funding. The new mobile truck that was brought in after the closure of ARCHES has two booths and an area to monitor people for signs of an overdose. The province revealed on Saturday that the truck has three consumption booths.
The government also said that since the closure of ARCHES, the city has seen a 36 per cent decline in opioid-related calls for emergency medical services and a “modest” decrease in drug and overdose deaths. A request for the actual numbers was declined.
The latest opioid numbers also revealed that visits to ARCHES during the second quarter plunged to 12,101 from 58,719 in the first quarter.
Slaney and Larson said the reduction was due to service reductions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a shortage of naloxone kits and medical supplies.
“It’s heartbreaking when you hear them [the provincial government] say this is all because of COVID,” Larson said.
“It isn’t, that is a factor. But the foundation of that is access to services, where they’re pulling all of these great solutions that would mitigate that access problem away.”
Larson said the provincial government had “defunded, cancelled, scaled back [and] squashed” different overdose prevention models, such as mobile and virtual supervised consumption services, but also, she said, basic supplies such as naloxone kits and syringes.
The province denies that claim and said in a statement to CBC that there has been “no reduction made to available harm-reduction supplies, like naloxone kits or syringes.”
The government’s numbers also show that Lethbridge led the province on a per-capita basis in responses by emergency medical services to opioid-related events at 333 per 100,000 people, more than double the provincial rate.
The site is being supported by Moms Stop the Harm, a national advocacy group made up of women whose children have struggled with addictions or have lost a son or daughter to an opioid overdose.
Lori Hatfield, a Lethbridge resident whose son has been struggling with addiction for more than a decade, said harm-reduction strategies saved her son’s life when he was given a prescription for Suboxone, an addiction treatment medication.
“Dead people don’t recover,” she said while defending supervised consumption sites. “This is like the starting point for recovery.”
Larson said she’s hopeful the community will accept what Slaney and his group are trying to do.
“I would just very much hope that we use the discretion that’s available to us as a society, to leave them at peace to do that critical job right now now that is filling a chasm of a gap in services and care for discrete segments of our population.”