Overdose prevention site needed in Saint John

Aug 16, 2022

Avenue B, a harm reduction organization based in Saint John, has been preparing to apply to Health Canada for a licence in order to operate an overdose prevention site in an effort to reduce overdose-related deaths. If the application is approved, it would be the second overdose prevention site in New Brunswick. The first site was opened by Ensemble Greater Moncton, and provides a safe place to test and use substances, where staff is available to intervene in case of a negative reaction.

According to Julie Dingwell, executive director of Avenue B, the agency has witnessed a number of deaths linked to toxic supply and overdose. She added that some of the clients who had passed away had experience in using drugs, but the appearance of fentanyl in street drugs has increased the risk of overdose-related deaths.

“We’re just in constant grief here with losing people,” said Dingwell. “We lost a couple people that we’ve worked with for 20 years.”

While Avenue B plans to build a new facility on Waterloo Street in Saint John’s uptown, Dingwell said she has been looking for another spot to urgently open the overdose prevention site. “We just want to keep people alive,” she said.

In his interview with CBC News, Saint John Police Chief Robert Bruce said that before fentanyl appeared in the illicit drug supply, officers would generally receive a call for an overdose once every 3-4 days. However, these days, he said gets one or two overdose-related calls per shift.

Bruce added that between January and April 2022, there was a 30% increase in overdose calls compared to 2021. “Some of the people know what they can handle and what they can’t because they’ve been addicted for some time,” he said. “When they overdose, then you know something isn’t right.”

Saint John police force’s supervisors carry Narcan, a drug that can be used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. However, Bruce said that sometimes, two or three doses of Narcan are required due to the “increasing toxicity” of the drugs.

“We’re just about to go to Narcan in every car for our members, just because of the amount of people that we’re running into,” Bruce said. “Before it was alright to have a patrol supervisor that had it and could bring it to you fairly quickly, but now we’re finding that our officers are going to more of these, so they require it in the vehicle.”

So far, no timeline of approval for the opening of a new overdose prevention site has been indicated by the provincial government. Although “Implementing overdose prevention sites” has been listed as a priority in New Brunswick’s 2021-25 mental health and addiction plan, the government hasn’t provided any information with regard to when the funding for additional overdose prevention sites would become available.

“Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS) provide a much-needed service to people who use various substances, especially for those who are precariously housed or homeless,” said Department of Health spokesperson Coreen Enos in an emailed statement to CBC News. “When those details are finalized, the provincial government will have more to share with the public.”