Opioid crisis continues to escalate; huge demand for services at Safe Consumption Site

By Lara Fominoff @LaraFominoff on Twitter
May 7, 2018 - 6:00pm Updated: May 8, 2018 - 2:02am

LETHBRIDGE - Since Lethbridge’s first and only safe consumption site opened its doors two months ago, there have been more than 8,000 visits, or about 1,000 per week on average.

By comparison, the Calgary safe consumption site, which opened five months ago, is getting just over 100 visits per day, with about 10,000 in total so far. 

At a Community Issues Committee meeting Monday, April 7, the Executive Leaders Coalition on Opioid Use, made up of representatives from ARCHES, AHS, Lethbridge Police Service and EMS brought their findings to the committee.

ARCHES - SAFE CONSUMPTION SITE

ARCHES Executive Director Stacey Bourque says there are so many people who want access to the facility, there can be waits of 60 to 90 minutes for those needing to use the booths or inhalation rooms. Drug use in the meantime can spill over into the immediate area around the safe consumption site.

"If somebody is not feeling well, and is going through withdrawal symptoms, it's very difficult for them to sit and wait."

That’s why they’re now applying to expand their facilities in the next couple of months.

"We estimate that we need four more booths, and another inhalation room in our existing facility. But we also need to cover 24 hours worth of service, so we're looking at other options to provide the service in the community."

That may include a temporary overdose prevention site to take the overflow. There is also an application in to create a safe sobering facility within the existing building.

"We didn't expect we'd have this much uptake this quick. I think it's a positive thing because I know one of the concerns from the community was that nobody would use the facility; that people who use drugs wouldn't walk there to use there. They would just continue to use in the community. And although it doesn't stop public drug consumption, that's 8,000 uses that didn't happen in the community in the last couple of months... now we have to be able to keep up with the need."

Bourque also told the committee that users are staying longer than anticipated; that many are being counselled and referred to other services, but there is a real lack of infrastructure in Lethbridge to help those who do seek it out. 

Oftentimes there can be waits of up to a year for treatment, and there isn't a complete "exit strategy" to help them get off drugs.

According to their statistics, so far there have been 389 unique clients registered to use the facility, with about 75 per cent of them visiting it more than once. Thirty-three per cent of those going to the site have been there 10 or more times.

Over the last two months, the safe consumption site staff attended to 70 overdoses, including administering oxygen 68 times and naloxone 22 times. EMS had to be called 11 times; twice for severe overdoses, once for a serious infection, and one time for a diabetic issue. 

After the presentation, Councillor Blaine Hyggen asked Bourque whether the availability of naloxone may be creating a false sense of security and therefore not discouraging drug use.

"No. Naloxone kits were introduced because people were dying," said Bourque. "There aren't more people using drugs because there's a lifesaving measure in place... But we don't find that it enables anything or encourages further drug use. It's just a tool to keep people alive."

One surprising fact Bourque mentioned was that the number of needles they’re giving out each month has been drastically reduced from a high of 30,000 a month in the summer of 2017, to about 10,000 to 15,000 since the site opened.

LETHBRIDGE EMS

While the supervised consumption site is providing a safer place for addicts and users to go, the actual number of overdose calls has not slowed down at all.

In fact, according to Fire Chief Rich Hildebrandt, Lethbridge is still in "crisis mode." In 2016 there were 608 calls for overdoses, in 2017 there were 664, with naloxone administered a total of 208 times. 

So far this year, there have been 272 overdose calls. That means the city is on track so far, to exceed the number of calls from last year by about 25 per cent, if the current trend continues.

"We're still experiencing an overdose rate that is higher than usual across the province, and there's no question it's generating frequent calls for 9-1-1 emergency medical service.

"There's no question that the opioid issue is at crisis level in Lethbridge. I don't think we can expect necessarily that the supervised consumption site is going to eliminate that. But it does provide options."

And Hildebrandt says the number of calls they get, do take a toll on their members.

"There's no question the number of events, and the severity of events... it's difficult for our staff to deal with at times.

"In my career, in the early days, if we were to give Narcan-naloxone once a year, it was unusual. Today, our staff are experiencing this on a daily basis. And it's quite incredible, really."

LETHBRIDGE POLICE SERVICE 

It’s too soon to say whether the Safe Consumption Site is having any impact on the number of crimes overall being committed in the city.

Only anecdotally, Insp. Tom Ascroft told media that it doesn’t yet appear as though there is any reduction in property crime or other issues related to addiction and criminal behaviour.

In fact, he says LPS generally reports only on a yearly basis.

"[The safe consumption site] has only been open two months, and statistics don't work that fast for us. We still have calls, but they're more focused on one area. The safe consumption site. In the area around there. There's a lot more foot traffic than that part of the community would have been used to. So yeah, we're hearing it's a work in progress."

He does say that LPS, along with ARCHES host a monthly meeting for local business owners and concerned citizens.

"We're aware it's an area where there's some anti-social behaviour going on because of the nature of the population there. I think in the long run it's a better strategy than just having it going on everywhere, in the library, bathrooms, in the malls, and in the parks and stuff like that. This is a much better way of controlling it."

That said, Ascroft encourages anyone who sees or experiences drug-related crimes going on in their area to contact them right away.

There's no timeline at this point, for the next Opioid Coalition report. 

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