A United Conservative Party win could see harm reduction project axed across the province
If Jason Kenney is elected next year, all signs point to a government that will not accept common-sense recommendations from public health experts that support Alberta’s vulnerable drug users suffering from addiction.
Instead, Kenney indicated he will enact a zero-tolerance policy against drugs that has been failing for generations.
“We need to help them get off drugs,” Kenney said in a Facebook post earlier this month. “Instead, governments are spending money to help addicts consume this poison.”
This strategy is akin to fighting abortions with abstinence, low test scores with boarding school, and obesity with a strict diet of kale and club soda. The theory is sound, but in practice it just won’t work.
“We have all the evidence, and we know these facilities will save lives,” says Shelley Williams, chair of Access to Medically Supervised Injection Services Edmonton (AMSISE). “It’s about harm reduction, keeping people alive so they can make a better decision on another day.”
Supervised consumption sites are for people who are using needles and injecting themselves on public streets, parks and in neighbourhoods. Since their access to sterile equipment is limited, the chance of spreading disease multiplies. In 2014, an Edmonton Drug Use and Health surveyed 320 respondents, 80 percent of whom said they would use safe consumption sites within a 10 block radius.
Access to drugs is not meant to enable their addiction, but rather prevent unsafe and public consumption by bringing them under the supervision of medical professionals.
Leaving these users outside is not just cruel, it’s costly. Williams pointed to studies conducted by Alberta Health and the University of Alberta that show how consumption sites reduce the amount of users who overdose, which in turn helps save hundreds of thousands of dollars on ambulance and emergency room visits.
Moreover, access to sterile equipment reduces the spread of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, which also burden the public health system, and patients, with expensive treatment.
The 2014 survey also tallied that 85 per cent of drug users who will use safe injection sites have untreated mental or physical health issues. These people are 30 percent more likely to seek treatment and use other government services to turn their lives around once they enter a safe injection site.
“It’s about relationship development, we have embedded this into our agencies and partners that will support their recovery,” Williams says.
The facilities will be crucial in fighting Alberta’s opioid crisis, which claimed 562 lives last year from fentanyl overdose. In Calgary, a temporary safe consumption has been visited more than 2,550 times. In those visits, clinic staff intervened and prevented 55 overdoses.
Opening the four Edmonton sites will mark victories in this public health battle, but the finish line is still far away. Kenney’s comments might disrupt the momentum, but Williams indicates there is still time to get the UCP leader and his fellow naysayers on board.
“We will keep our head down and the information coming,” Williams says. “We are educating as much as we can in order to keep services the way they need to be.”