By Lethbridge Herald on October 7, 2020.
Jason Laurendeau, Caroline Hodes and Dustin Fox
In the middle of multiple pandemics (COVID-19, an opioid crisis, and ongoing systemic racism in policing), it has come to our attention that the publisher and advertising manager for The Herald has made the decision to wade into a complex issue such as supporting drug users with an oversimplified narrative that invokes what is referred to as an “illegal É shoot-up tent” and foreign-funding of a grassroots initiative. Instead of pointing to what author Brian Hancock refers to as facts, these assertions draw very selectively on data from the AHS-operated overdose prevention site and the now-closed Supervised Consumption Site (SCS).
This is a complex issue, one worthy of thoughtful, sustained, reasoned discussion and debate. As such, it is worth looking carefully at the analyses that experts have done, including those that conclude that unsanctioned overdose prevention sites in Toronto and elsewhere are “safe sanctuaries” for the most vulnerable citizens, those most likely to experience police harassment, racist vitriol and stigma. Sadly, Hancock has oversimplified the issue, vilified those both doing the frontline work and supporting it, and has erroneously suggested that tax dollars are supporting an initiative that is, instead, the work of those fighting to strengthen public health policy in their local communities and more broadly.
By his own admission, Hancock wants what he refers to as an “attention-seeking stunt” to be “shut down” and to have “people arrested.” He frames this initiative as a nefarious volunteer undertaking designed not to save lives but one operating in the interests of a vague “something else going on” that constitutes “another black eye for the taxpaying residents of Lethbridge.” This, despite it not being a tax-supported initiative. On the contrary, the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society was recently fined $300 for a bylaw infraction associated with their pop-up facility.
The closing of the busiest supervised consumption site on the continent took place as part of a broader Alberta government project to defund harm-reduction measures and instead invest in treatment and rehabilitation. While treatment and rehabilitation programs are laudable, so, too, are harm-reduction measures, which, quite literally, keep people alive. The suggestion that it is sufficient to go from a perpetually busy supervised consumption site with 13 injection booths and two inhalation rooms to a mobile site with only two injection booths and no inhalation room simply does not hold water. That the mobile unit isn’t being used to capacity is evidence that we are not meeting the needs of local drug users. It is a clear indication that those users who were previously being supported by the SCS do not feel supported by the mobile unit and are instead consuming in less safe and supported ways.
While it may be the case that the city “has experienced a 36 per cent decrease in opioid-related EMS responses,” this does not suggest that there are fewer users. Instead, it suggests that fewer of them are consuming in a safe space where someone is well equipped to call for help. Hancock’s assertion that there has been a “modest decrease in drug and alcohol overdose deaths” since the closing of the SCS is based on a paucity of data — the SCS has been closed less than a month. What all of this points to is that more users are consuming in less visible and supported spaces.
People are in need of help. Like many people who are misinformed about the notion of harm reduction, Mr. Hancock oversimplifies the issue and perpetuates harmful assumptions about people who most need understanding and empathy. This short-sighted attitude toward people suffering with addiction issues echoes that old tone of dismissal; when dealing with the contemporary crises, we cannot simply say “enough is enough.”
Hancock’s call to criminalize those who would see our most vulnerable better supported stands to relegate some members of the Lethbridge community to premature death. We ask readers to consider if Hancock’s Lethbridge, a place where people are denied basic medical services on the basis of racist and ableist assumptions, is where they want to live.
Jason Laurendeau is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge. Caroline Hodes is Associate Professor of Women & Gender Studies at the University of Lethbridge. Dustin Fox is a University of Lethbridge alumnus and is studying Canadian common law and Indigenous legal orders at the University of Victoria.