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Red Deer city council hears passionate support for overdose prevention site

Physicians, social workers, business owners, former drug users and family members of people who died from drug poisonings told Red Deer city councillors on Thursday what they want to see happen to the city’s overdose prevention site.

The majority of speakers at the non-statutory public hearing spoke in favour of the site, which opened in October 2018 in response to surging deaths due to opioid poisonings.

The facility operates in an ATCO trailer next to the Safe Harbour Society, which runs the central Alberta city’s homeless shelter.

Services were provided by non-profit harm reduction agency Turning Point until May 2023 when the government transferred operations to Alberta Health Services.

Thursday’s public hearing was sparked by a motion introduced by Coun. Vesna Higham before Christmas.

Higham would like to see the site closed by the end of 2024, while the province increases the availability of different forms of harm reduction services. Her motion, if passed, would not be binding on the province or Alberta Health Services.

‘Dead people cannot recover’

Wendy Little, with the group Moms Stop the Harm, lost her son Quinn, 22, in 2020.

She told council that her mission is to reduce the stigma around drug use while also reducing harm and the number of overdose deaths.

The Alberta model, which emphasizes recovery over harm reduction, isn’t the only way to address the drug crisis, she told council.

“This model does not provide adequate harm reduction services to protect people from the toxic drug supply that is the biggest problem,” Little said.

“Dead people cannot recover. Quinn will never recover.”

Dr. Thara Kumar, an emergency room physician who works in Red Deer, told council that closing the overdose prevention site would only worsen problems in the community.

“We’ll see more people using the substances or experiencing overdoses in public spaces,” Kumar said. “We’ll see more EMS calls and more trips to the emergency department.”

Kumar told council that people who use drugs need more access to support services, such is what is seen at supervised consumption sites.

She said overdose prevention sites, like the one in Red Deer, were always meant to be temporary. 

Staff there are doing great work in a small, underfunded site, Kumar said. She said the OPS staff reverse overdoses on-site, lessening the strain on EMS and the emergency department.

People sit behind desks inside a meeting room.
Red Deer council chambers were full Thursday for a public hearing on the future of the city’s overdose prevention site. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC)

Kumar advocates for a supervised consumption site fully equipped with social workers, mental health professionals, primary health care and access to housing. She said facilities of that type are among the best evidence-backed ways of helping communities solve problems with open drug use.

The majority of presenters Thursday spoke in favour of keeping the OPS. But two business owners behind a petition said the site has led to vandalism, crime, needle debris and open drug use in the area.

Tracy Chabot told councillors that many people who use the facility aren’t from Red Deer, and that they come from Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatchewan and other parts of Canada. She thinks closing the OPS would force those people to go back home to get better care.

The current set-up just draws drug users together, she said.

“They don’t go into the OPS; they’re outside shooting up,” Chabot said. “The OPS is not keeping them within the OPS. They’re everywhere.”

Red Deer city council set aside Thursday to hear from the public. The list of speakers was at 34 when the afternoon session started at 12:30 p.m.

Councillors have set aside time on Friday afternoon to debate Higham’s motion, if required. 

The motion asks the provincial government to phase out the site over a year, while increasing harm reduction measures such as detox beds and medication-assisted treatment available to help people who are addicted to opioids. 

Higham said she wasn’t surprised to hear a wide range of opinions about what to do. She said she hasn’t heard anything that has yet changed her mind. 

She emphasized that her motion doesn’t ask for the OPS to close overnight, as that would be catastrophic without an increase in other harm reduction measures and supports. 

She said she was open to amendments once council starts debating her motion. But she reminded people that it has no effect on the province or Alberta Health Services. 

“They own it, they fund it, they operate it,” Higham said.

“The intent of the motion is to raise those alarm bells to say we need help. What we’ve been doing is not working and so we need to look at something else.”

The governing United Conservative Party has allocated millions of dollars toward establishing recovery centres while remaining cool to expanding supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites. Those sites provide drug users with a judgment-free space to ingest substances and access medical help if their drugs are poisoned

Since the UCP formed government in 2019, there has been a move away from harm reduction measures toward an emphasis on getting people into recovery.

Red Deer is now home to two residential recovery centres — the campus operated by the province in the north part of the city, and the Dream Centre, which uses Christian teachings as part of its program. 

Red Deer recorded 40 drug deaths in the first 10 months of 2023.

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