By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on October 1, 2020.
The latest quarterly report from the government of Alberta shows a startling increase in overdoses and overdose-related deaths in the City of Lethbridge, and the entire South Zone, over the first six months of 2020.
As of June of this year 36 individuals have died due to overdoses in the South Zone, with 21 of those in the City of Lethbridge. Lethbridge, sadly, is on pace to exceed its previous overdose death high-water mark set in 2018 when 25 people died during the year.
And while Lethbridge statistically represents a drop in the bucket for total overdose deaths in Alberta, (which stands at a shockingly high number of 449 deaths through the first six months of 2020), it is still a tragic situation, and devastating to those who have lost loved ones this year.
Bearing in mind these deaths have occurred despite having supervised consumption services available through ARCHES and the Alberta Health Services through that time period in Lethbridge, the cause of these overdoses, according to the province, is largely due to the impacts of COVID-19. Those dependent on drugs have had difficulty accessing the usual supports they relied on pre-pandemic, and have faced increased stress and anxiety.
Given these alarming statistics, it is perhaps not surprising the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society has tried to intervene in the situation by setting up its pop-up OPS tent downtown in recent nights. But, as mentioned above, it is not the lack of safe consumption services which has led to the current deaths in Lethbridge over the first six months of 2020. Therefore, it is hard to imagine how this unsanctioned pop-up site is going to help, particularly since the tent is constantly under the eye of the police and City bylaw officers, and most in Lethbridge appear to be opposed to its operation. And with the availability of the Alberta Health Services-run mobile OPS already in operation not too far away, the moral argument for its operation on humanitarian grounds seems somewhat dubious as well, particularly when its users are exposed to potential arrest and prosecution should they enter.
The question must be asked: Is this site being set up to truly help those in need? Or are Lethbridge’s most vulnerable being used once again as a political football in an ongoing battle between harm-reduction advocates and those opposed to such services being offered in the community?
Sadly, we have seen such political battles before in our city, and we are no further ahead today than we were in 2018 when the ARCHES SCS first opened its doors in finding any sort of consensus or way forward on the issue of opioids, and overdose-related deaths, in Lethbridge.
We still cannot properly house the estimated 200 vulnerable people we have in our community in need. We do not have enough recovery spaces or mental health supports available to maximize the chance of recovery for individuals seeking treatment for their addictions and trauma. And we are facing a global pandemic which has precipitated failures in the limited current support systems we do have to top it all off.
There are no easy answers to this ongoing drug crisis. No one cause of all our problems we can scapegoat and banish. And without unity and community consensus on what to do going forward, those who are most vulnerable in our midst will continue to fall through cracks and become abstracted numbers on some quarterly report of overdoses and opioid-related deaths.
We as a city can, and must, do better than that.
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