By Jensen, Randy on October 1, 2020.
Representatives of the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society made a brief presentation to the Lethbridge Police Commission on Wednesday about what their purposes are in the community, and what they intend to do going forward.
Group spokesperson Kaley Ann Beaudoin told commissioners they have applied for a legal exemption from Health Canada to offer sanctioned overdose prevention services in Lethbridge, but in the meantime would continue to operate as an unsanctioned OPS site despite some community opposition.
“This (exemption) process takes time, and the immediate needs of the community can not wait on bureaucracy,” she said. “There is a history in Canada of overdose prevention sites beginning as unsanctioned, and applying for their legal exemption afterwards. The Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society intends to follow in the footsteps of those exemption sites that came before us.”
She also stated that unsanctioned does not mean illegal and, referencing failed attempts to close Insite in Vancouver by previous governments, felt the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with her group’s interpretation of the law.
Beaudoin expressed the hope that the current OPS operated by Alberta Health Services and the broader community would work with them to support their efforts to save lives.
“First and foremost, the ARCHES-operated SCS closed at the end of August of this year,” she explained to reporters after her presentation to the commission. “So that option has closed. In its place, we saw a mobile van come from Alberta Health Services, and they have a capacity of about 10 per cent of what ARCHES was able to accommodate. We did not see an uptake into the same levels of numbers into the AHS mobile unit from the ARCHES supervised consumption site. So people from the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society have been connecting with people who use drugs in Lethbridge to try to understand why they are not using that site. And so what we wanted to do was to address some of those concerns and provide an alternative.
“We want to work harmoniously with AHS,” she stated. “We don’t see us as something to happen instead, but rather a complement in order to provide people with an option in what services they can access. And to make them more accessible for people who don’t feel comfortable or safe to make it down to the (AHS) van.”
Chief of Police Shahin Mehdizadeh, in his first appearance at the police commission since becoming chief, contradicted Beaudoin’s interpretation of the law.
“There is always safety concerns with any facility when you are dealing with drug use and overdose issues,” he explained to reporters. “And when outfits and agencies who are not going through the proper procedure to get the proper licensing and clearance from Health Canada, it is certainly concerning to us and, I am sure, the majority of citizens here.”
“The law is very clear on that,” he added. “They don’t have approval from Health Canada; so they are not an agency that has the clearance to provide those services. The law is very clear: what they are doing is illegal. But it is also important not be heavy handed in relation to the law itself. We haven’t seen any illegal activity so far, which is a good thing, but even when we do, like in any case, it is subject to investigation and discretion as to where we want to go with that and how we want to deal with it.”
Mehdizadeh conceded Overdose Prevention Society members are well-intentioned, but he also made it clear any criminal activity observed by his officers at the group’s pop-up tent is subject to charges, both for the society’s members and for the drug users they profess to be helping.
“When these tents and these initiatives are set up, the intent is good, but the way they are going about it is wrong,” he stated. “In fact, I am really concerned about the consumption that is going on. If anything happens in this tent, and if something bad was to happen – do they have the training to actually deal with the situation? Or are they putting themselves in a position of liability by opening these things.”
But Mehdizadeh also conceded there are no easy answers to the situation.
“We take the tent down, we are sure two more will be coming up,” he said. “So is that the answer? I don’t think so. It’s a matter of education and making sure what they are doing they are doing it according to the laws and approvals they need to get.”
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