LETHBRIDGE - It came much sooner than expected and according to local, provincial and federal health experts, it will help save lives in southern Alberta.
On October 13, Health Canada gave federal drug legislation exemptions for one supervised consumption site in Lethbridge to be run by ARCHES, and four sites in Edmonton, including one at Royal Alexandra Hospital.
Calgary has applied for two sites, with at least one approval expected by the end of this month.
The Lethbridge site, which will be located in the former Pulse Nightclub building on 1 Avenue South, will also become the first supervised consumption building in North America to allow users to not only inject illicit drugs, but to smoke, snort and take pills.
The building will contain rooms with powerful ventilation, a laundry, washrooms, kitchen, counselling services, injection booths, and a host of other services for addicts.
Mayor Chris Spearman says ARCHES has done an incredible amount of work to ensure their application went through quickly. He says it also means that the city is serious about addressing substance abuse and social issues.
"We worked as a team here in the city of Lethbridge. We've been meeting monthly since last November. We've had the best experts available to us locally to provide input and feedback to ARCHES. But ARCHES has certainly carried the ball on this and I commend them for their effort."
Jill Manning, Managing Director of ARCHES, says 16 organizations took part in the process and without their input, the applicatons would not have been expedited.
"We also need to acknowledge those members of the community who we, as ARCHES, may not even know personally. People who have stood up on behalf of their friends and their family members and their co-workers and people who have experienced either the losses of those lives due to substance use or are still just on those journeys themselves."
But Manning does understand that there are those in the community who are not supportive of the site.
"Those people who maybe feel like they haven't been invited to the table in these conversations. People who feel like their concerns haven't been heard. We recognized that's an important demographic that we still need to connect with. It's a big table. We would invite everyone to join us at that table."
And Manning emphasizes that the supervised consumption site is not a "magic bullet."
"We don't want to give the impression that the minute our doors open, all of sudden this problem is just going to be solved.... we recognize that this is only one intervention when we look at how we can deal with this on a larger scale.... Certainly we recognize the importance of early intervention and prevention and healthy communities and healthy families, and healthy kids and all of those things as well as some of the 'later in the game' interventions like detox and rehabilitation."
What she does expect, is less public drug consumption, fewer needles and less drug-related debris to worry about.
"We don't want to see our fellow citizens dying in back alleys and under bridges because they can't access supports.
"Lethbridge is unique in certain ways," she explains. "Our emergency room visits related to opioid use is higher than anywhere else in the province, our prescriptions of opioids are higher than anywhere else in the province... and we're rural. We have a number of people from surrounding communities that come to Lethbridge to access services and supports."
In fact, According to Alberta Health Services, 16 people have already died from Fentanyl related overdoses in the South Health Zone this year, with more than two months to go. 17 people died altogether in 2016.
Additional supports for addicts are expected within the city sometime in 2018. Spearman says Alberta Health Services has been working to identify a potential detox site at Chinook Regional Hospital, which could contain up to eight beds.
The safe consumption site, pending inspection, should open sometime in January 2018.
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