Lethbridge mayor says opioid crisis turning into a political issue

By Lara Fominoff @LaraFominoff on Twitter
June 4, 2018 - 4:21pm

LETHBRIDGE - Mayor Chris Spearman is taking aim at the criticism he, the city and ARCHES' Supervised Consumption Site have been receiving over the last several weeks.

Speaking from Halifax where he's attending the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) meeting, the mayor says the heat that ARCHES has been taking is unfair.

"I think ARCHES is taking a lot of blame, and they deserve a huge amount of credit for providing beneficial services and limiting drug debris in the community."

Spearman believes that the needle distribution and debris issues are being made into political issues, and that he says, is 'very unfortunate.'

"I don't think this is a political issue, it's a community health issue. And people who are opposed philosophically to a supervised consumption site should give their heads a shake."

Spearman's office sent a release to media outlets Monday morning, outlining the efforts the city and ARCHES have been undertaking to try and help addicts, to centralise drug consumption by providing a safe place for them to use, and to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases like Hepatitis and HIV in the community.

He says he helped initiate the Executive Leaders Coalition on Opioid Use in November 2016, and the city has funded the ARCHES needle hotline, developed the safe needle disposal guide, supplied needle boxes in 12 areas around the city, and recently approved up to $150,000 to expand the Downtown BRZ Clean Sweep Program.

He adds that ARCHES does not, as has been suggested online "hand out needles by the handful," and what should be more concerning are dealers who are selling pre-loaded syringes loaded with Fentanyl.

However, he does acknowledge that the opioid crisis in Lethbridge is getting worse, not better. ARCHES recently expanded its hours of operation to 24/7 to try and keep up with the exceptional demand. Users wait anywhere from 10 minutes to 90 minutes to get in, and the lineups are constant.

"There's temporary expansion and permanent expansion being planned by ARCHES. And applications have been made to Alberta Health Services. We're looking at possible additional sites, and maybe a mobile unit. Those are health issues. That's between ARCHES and Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services. But certainly, the numbers have been far more than we have expected."

Spearman also says that the city may be looking at installing more biohazard yellow boxes throughout the city.

"Our parks employees are doing sweeps of the parks to look for needle debris and they're familiar with areas they're most frequently found. In addition, ARCHES has trained school custodians to make sure that children can be protected as much as possible. Parents do have to be vigilant and school systems need to make sure that they're informing the students of the risks if they're seeing needle debris."

Another criticism has been that Lethbridge has few follow-up resources for addicts who do want to get clean or stop using. While Medicine Hat has an 18-bed dedicated detox facility, Lethbridge won't have one until the this fall at Chinook Regional Hospital, and there will only be eight beds in total.

As well, Spearman says last week he wrote a letter to Provincial Associate Minister of Health Brandy Payne, to ask about the status of a safe sobering centre application for the city.

"There is a continuum of services that are needed. We were fortunate to get the supervised consumption site. That does divert usage into an area where the debris can be managed to some extent. But as the problem grows, we're going to have to increase the capacity in order to minimize the risk to the community."

So, given that the opioid crisis has been ongoing at least in some areas for several years, LNN asked the mayor whether the city has been more proactive or reactive to the related issues?

"We're more proactive than any other city. There's no other city in the province of our size that has a supervised consumption site. So only Calgary and Edmonton. Others are hoping for supervised consumption services."

Spearman says they'll continue to work with the Leaders Coalition and to continue to make recommendations to address community safety.

But there are also many in the community who say the city, ARCHES, and Alberta Health can do more.

There will also be a rally held at City Hall for those concerned about the opioid crisis in the community June 15 from 7:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m.

The primary focus will be to promote the use of 'safety' or retractable needles, a needle exchange program, and to ask for larger treatment and rehabilitative services in the city. 

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