By Lethbridge Herald on January 22, 2020.
Local community leaders are responding to Premier Jason Kenney’s speculation on Tuesday that his government may consider closing some supervised consumption sites and relocating others in the province.
Mayor Chris Spearman said any potential closure of the SCS in Lethbridge, the busiest in the province, could bring even further problems to the city, especially if the government doesn’t add any new dollars for services like supportive housing, intox, detox and treatment.
“It has been a divisive issue in our city, for sure,” Spearman acknowledged. “We want to have solutions. We don’t think the problem of drug addiction and drug-related crime is going to go away by closing the SCS. The issue is we have people who are addicted, and we have to address the root causes. So for more than five years, we’ve have been advocating for adequate intox, adequate detox, supportive housing, and treatment and recovery facilities. Without those other supports, we just won’t ever solve this issue.”
Relocation of the existing site might also prove problematic, said Spearman.
“When it comes to a possible move, we don’t want to speculate on where they might put it,” he said. “But ideally, it’s in an area where people can access it if it is to actually fulfil its function of harm reduction. Most of the clientele are walking there, and if it is on the edge of the city or outside of the city, they won’t use it.”
Spearman acknowledged it was a provincial decision to make either way, but he hoped the province would take into account the other services the SCS provides to the city’s most vulnerable population.
“The supervised consumption site provides 16 other services in addition to supervised (drug) consumption,” he explained,” and so getting people referred into medical care, and on to other services, is important as well. I think that story doesn’t get told often enough; that the supervised consumption site has other benefits.”
Lethbridge East MLA Nathan Neudorf said Premier Kenney has been consistent in his views on harm reduction and supervised consumption services.
“I think the premier has been clear all along that our direction is going to be much more focused on treatment and recovery, and not strictly on harm reduction,” explained Neudorf. “I think (Tuesday’s) announcement and his comments emphasized that. I don’t know any specifics on any location, including Lethbridge, or what or if they have decided anything at this point yet. But obviously the direction is going to be on getting people well instead of on just management of an addiction.”
Neudorf pointed out the premier is not strictly opposed to harm reduction and supervised consumption services, and acknowledged they may even be needed and appropriate under certain circumstances. Neudorf said this reflects his own views on the subject.
“I do understand (harm reduction) is part of the four pillars to treating addiction,” stated Neudorf, while emphasizing his own preference is to see addicts receive treatment for their addictions rather than exclusively relying on SCS services.
Neudorf also acknowledged some Lethbridge residents might be growing impatient while waiting for the provincial government to wrap up its SCS reviews and line things up properly for the rollout of new mental health and addictions funding expected in the March budget.
“I was able to speak with the chief of staff for associate minister for Mental Health and Addictions (on Wednesday), and he spoke to the premier yesterday,” said Neudorf. “They are well aware that Lethbridge is probably the number-one hot zone for this (drug crisis) in the province, and whatever directions and changes they make will have to help address the situation in Lethbridge. It does take time. There are lots of pieces at play, but the province is very well aware of Lethbridge and its needs. And wants to help address those needs in a meaningful way in as quick a time frame as possible.”
ARCHES executive director Stacey Bourque, whose organization runs the SCS in Lethbridge, said it was encouraging to hear the premier acknowledge on Tuesday, amidst his largely critical remarks on supervised consumption sites, that harm reduction has a role to play in any provincial addiction strategy.
“Mr. Kenney was clear that it was never their intention to close all the supervised consumption sites in the province,” she said, “and I believe he also stated that he knows that harm reduction is an important piece of the larger continuum.”
On the subject of potential relocation, Bourque said the current location of the SCS was well-considered before it was chosen, but she would be open to revisiting that with the provincial government if necessary.
“If the government believes there is a better location for the SCS in Lethbridge, of course we would work with them to make that a reality,” she said. “It has to be close to where the people who need the service are. There is a variety of factors which led us to determine the current location, which would be access to public transportation, access to the areas of the city that were identified as being the highest overdose rates at the time, which of course was the downtown, and access to populations of people who were walking to the SCS from other social service agencies.”
Bourque stressed again the SCS did not cause the social disorders Lethbridge is facing during the worst drug crisis in the province’s and city’s history, but acknowledged by providing an essential harm reduction and health service where none used to exist has exposed those problems for the public to see in a more immediate way than it did before. Bourque also agreed the lack of other support services for the city’s marginalized population has aggravated the situation.
“In the absence of services, without supportive housing, intox, detox and treatment, problems only move or centralize near existing services,” Bourque stated. “And that is what we have seen in Lethbridge.”
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