Banff harm reduction program offers free fentanyl tests

Feb 10, 2023

Earlier in January, the Banff Public Library launched a pilot program which combines harm reduction approaches with access to relevant information in order to address the ongoing opioid crisis in Alberta. Moreover, the library had partnered with primary care networks in the area to provide free drug testing kits in the Bow Valley in anticipation of New Year’s Eve.

“If you think of the traditional place of libraries, you have the patrons, and a public, that wants to know things, and a library facilitates getting that knowledge,” said Jessia Arsenio, access and inclusion assistant of the Banff library, in his interview with CBC News. “In this case, it’s ‘am I going to be safe tonight? How can I make sure of that?’ People do want to know what is in the substances they’re taking; they just often don’t have the tools to confirm that information.”

According to data released by the province, 2021, was the deadliest year in Alberta’s history in terms of drug overdoses. In addition, there were 976 drug overdose-related deaths during the period spanning January to August 2022, compared to 969 deaths which took place over the same period in 2021.

Arsenio also noted that in contrast to taking an “abstinence only” approach to the opioid crisis, his goal is to keep people safe and reduce stigma. “This isn’t about moralizing it, it’s just about providing one tool,” he said. “I’m handing out helmets, but I’m not telling people to get on a bike. As far as I’m concerned people are going to be cycling anyway.”

However, Colin Aitchison, a spokesperson for the United Conservative government’s mental health and addiction ministry said there are some concerns related to the liability and the potential legality of the practice. “It’s important to be clear that all illicit drugs should always be considered dangerous and potentially deadly,” he said.

To counter this argument, Arsenio noted that he does not consider providing fentanyl-testing kits as enabling drug use. “People are going to be doing substances,” said Arsenio. Those who were not already going to do drugs will not suddenly decide to opt in if testing kits become available, he added. “That’s not the decision-making process that people enter into.”

Fentanyl testing kits are currently available at every pharmacy and clinic in Banff, as well as at locations in Lake Louise and Canmore, while Arsenio has plans to expand the program into Morley.

In 2020, the Calgary Public Library launched a pilot program to connect clients with mental health support through their ‘wellness desk,’ which offers free mental health and addictions support and is open four days a week.

“We’ve had naloxone available at select locations administered by our security for coming up to five years,” Mary Kapusta, a spokesperson for the Calgary Public Library, told CBC News. “There are those response tools that are incredibly important as we try and help people in these unimaginable times, but there are also has to be proactive solutions.”