Nurses, drug counsellors, paramedics and police are working together in Lethbridge to manage the current opioid crisis overtaking the city, home to 60% of southern Alberta’s fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2017.
Part of the effort includes a new safe consumption site, the first government-sanctioned safe consumption and inhalation room in Canada, where addicts can use drugs in a secure area, with nursing and counselling staff on site to help in case of emergency.
Lethbridge methamphetamine user Albert Paul says, “Everybody that has caught us using in a bathroom stall or around the corner, they think we’re lesser than them and we’re not really lesser. I felt walking through the door [at the safe consumption site] gave me dignity again.”
The inhalation room is enclosed in glass and equipped with an industrial exhaust system that can cycle out the air in ten seconds in case of emergency, allowing medical staff safe access to the room if necessary.
Naloxone reverses opioid overdoses, and can be administered by civilians as well as by emergency services personnel on drug overdose calls; however, first responders are finding that higher doses of naloxone are now required to combat the more potent drugs on the street, sometimes up to twenty times the normal amount, which depletes supplies of naloxone faster than can be replenished. Deputy Chief Dana Terry says the number of overdoses are starting to have a negative impact on Lethbridge’s first responders. “If we look at 2013,” she says, “we administered naloxone about 17 times that year. In 2017, [it was] about 190 times.”
Now, with the introduction of carfentanil, an opioid so potent that a deadly amount can be virtually undetectable, even drug users are terrified of using it.
“I have a friend who lost 13 people last year,” says addict Jeff Martens, admitting that there’s likely carfentanil and fentanyl in the methamphetamine he smokes.”The whole opioid crisis in the ’80s, this is 10 times worse.”
Lethbridge outreach leader Sherise Schlaht says, “I think at that point [of using drugs laced with opioids], [users are] so dope sick and they’re so psychologically dependent on the drug that it doesn’t even matter [if it’s tainted with fentanyl or carfentanil],” and wants addicts to know that using safe consumption sites won’t get them arrested.
One of the sixteen agencies that supports the safe consumption site effort is the Lethbridge Police Service, “We can’t possibly have predicted how big [the opioid crisis] was going to get,” Insp. Jason Dobirstein says, and adds, “There’s people suffering here that have got addiction issues that need more help than the police can provide in terms of arresting them.”
Safe consumption sites are a last ditch effort for Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman, who says the city is “overwhelmed” by the crisis. “I can’t sit around and ignore the fact that we’ve got these issues of visible drug use and drug debris,” he says. “We have to try something.”
As for critics who say safe consumption sites enable drug addiction, Bourque has a message: “The only thing we’re enabling here is breathing. You know, you can’t enable people to do something they’re already doing. It’s impossible…we support people where they’re at until they’re ready to make changes…at least if we keep people alive, they get to make that decision on another day. And that is why we’re here.”