Calgary's supervised consumption site has proven to be a contentious topic for many Calgarians — especially those living and working in the Beltline community where the site is located.
The site saved over 600 people from overdose, but there are some who think there are improvements to be made in Alberta's current harm reduction model. Experts claim that decriminalization of drug possession for personal use is in order to keep drug-using Calgarians alive.
Dee Kay, who works at Ghost & Anchor Tattoo across the street from the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre where the safe injection site is located, says, “Coming from a guy who used to live outside the safe injection site in Vancouver, this one sucks."
Dee Kay says that people without homes using the supervised consumption site have been building makeshift houses behind Ghost & Anchor. Some of these houses have caught on fire, filling the shop up with smoke.
This isn't the end of it either, according to Dee Kay, adding, "We've got a shanty town, a homeless shanty town, going on back there. We got pop-up drug dens in the alcove next door. And this is in the span of six months [since the safe injection site has opened]."
Amjad Ashour co-owns London Barbers, a barber shop next door to Ghost & Anchor Tattoo.
"The people that live in this area, they're not safe. They feel like they're not safe," he says.
Alberta’s safe injection sites
Safeworks, the safe injection service operated out of the Sheldon M. Chumir, is the first safe injection site to open in Alberta. Four more have since opened in the province.
One of those sites is located in Lethbridge where it's run by the AIDS Outreach Community Harm Reduction Education & Support Society (ARCHES).
Unlike Safeworks, which follows a clinical medicalized model, ARCHES uses a wrap around community-based model. By comparison, ARCHES serves a population a twelfth of the size of Calgary, but saves more people from overdose than Safeworks, according to statistics from ARCHES and Alberta Health Services.
Included in ARCHES wrap around model is housing services, counselling and subsidization supports for people who are HIV or hepatitis C positive, a walk-in clinic, and a take home naloxone program.
In contrast, clinical medicalized models are embedded into existing healthcare facilities. This saves money on constructing a new facility and can be beneficial if space is an issue.
Statistics from Alberta Health Services show that the supervised consumption site operated by Safeworks stopped 657 overdoses from October 30th, 2017 to October 31st, 2018. Yet, statistics from ARCHES show they have stopped 855 overdoses from February 28th, 2018 to October 31st, 2018.
Jill Manning, Director of Operations at ARCHES, says that the different models may contribute to the overdose prevention numbers.
“Within the drug-using community, specifically in street-involved homeless, vulnerable and marginalized populations, historically, there's a great degree of distrust of traditional or mainstream health care services and of our criminal justice systems,” Manning says.
Because ARCHES has been providing harm-reduction-based services to that population for decades, the distrust of traditional health care services "was a major hurdle that we didn't have to get over," adds Manning.
Even in Calgary, distrust of traditional health care and law enforcement services is a significant hurdle for those afflicted with drug addiction.
Rosalind Davis, co-founder of Change the Face of Addiction, says, "I think we do always need to be open minded to the idea that different approaches will work or would work. I think we've gone down a path where we have this dialogue that we've beat over and over again around substance use, and it hasn't worked.”
Change the Face of Addiction is a non-profit that Davis co-founded because of the loss of a loved one to the opioid crisis sweeping Canada. Davis seeks to create awareness about addiction in Calgary through the organization.
“So we're here now, and this is our opportunity to change the path of how we operate as a society and if we can take those changes or . . . implement those changes, I think everybody benefits,” says Davis.
SCS, still room for improvement
Dr. Hakique Virani, an addictions specialist in Alberta, says the growth of harm reduction services in Alberta has led to a plateauing of overdose numbers.
There have been a large number of lives saved with harm reduction services, but we're nowhere near where we ought to be," says Dr. Virani. "We need to be far more bold if we expect to see true protection of population health."
Implementing harm-reduction practices such as supervised consumption sites, widespread naloxone distribution and various opioid agonist therapies are all things that we've made some progress on says Dr. Virani.
Despite this progress, Dr. Virani says, "I think that the bigger and more impactful strategies that have to happen quickly are a reset on drug policy that has incentivized the toxic chemicals we're seeing in the illicit market. So that means decriminalization and increasing it also means a safe supply for people who were already using opioids as it has a significant risk of overdose."
Dr. Virani doesn't think decriminalization of opioid drugs is enough. "Decriminalizing all drugs for personal use is a necessary step," he says.
"We don't get sustainable public health without that type of policy."
Meanwhile, according to the Calgary Herald, Calgary’s city council has announced they will be setting aside $1 million to study the impact Calgary's supervised consumption site has on the surrounding neighbourhood.
With no resolution in sight, the future of the SCS remains uncertain.
- By Bailey Gingras-Hamilton and Laura Balanko-Dickson