This Government Is Defunding One of North America's Busiest Safe Injection Sites

ARCHES in Lethbridge, Alberta, will shut down on Overdose Awareness Day after Jason Kenney's government said it is pulling its funding due to "poor management."
August 14, 2020, 11:00am
Arches Lethbridge injection kit
The Alberta government is pulling funding from ARCHES, a safe injection site in Lethbridge, Alberta. Photo by Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A supervised consumption site said to be one of the busiest in North America will close on International Overdose Awareness Day after the Alberta government pulled its funding.

ARCHES operates in the southern Albertan city of Lethbridge, with a population of about 93,000 and an overdose rate higher than the rest of the province. It was the first site in North America to allow users to smoke as well as inject drugs under medical supervision, and it sees hundreds of visits per day.

That will end on August 31 when the site stops offering consumption, needle pickup and outreach services.

In an email statement, Kassandra Kitz, press secretary for mental health and addictions minister Jason Luan, said the funding cut was a response to a situation created by ARCHES’ “poor management” and “significant abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

In a statement, ARCHES said it “will continue to work with Alberta Health on the wind-down of these services and will support their plans for service transition.”

“The Board would like to acknowledge the staff that continue to provide a high-level of care to the clients and work through this difficult transition,” the statement said.

ARCHES has averaged more than 660 visits per day, according to the Toronto Star.

Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, called the closure “tragic.”

“The loss of services in the middle of the worst overdose crisis in the history of Alberta is going to be devastating for people who use drugs in Alberta,” he said.

Alberta’s United Conservative Party has been hostile to supervised consumption sites since its 2019 election campaign, when now-Premier Jason Kenney said the sites help “addicts inject poison into their bodies.”

The government assembled a panel last summer to examine how supervised consumption sites affect community members, specifically business owners. The panel’s March 2020 report noted complaints about needle debris and social disorder surrounding the facilities.

But a damning financial audit released in July was the final nail in the coffin for ARCHES.

The audit found more than $1.6 million of government funding was unaccounted for, while a senior executive’s compensation of $342,943 was more than four times what its grant allocation permitted, and $13,000 of interest from ARCHES bank accounts funded parties, staff retreats, gift cards, and entertainment.

According to the audit, the province had funded ARCHES with close to $14.5 million in grants over the last two years, making up 71 per cent of its budget in 2018-19.

On July 16, the government announced it would pull all funding from ARCHES.

MacPherson said he cannot comment on how the nonprofit was managed but it’s clear they were “operating a very valuable and highly used service that was clearly saving lives.”

No overdose deaths were recorded at ARCHES, and a report by the Alberta Community Council on HIV last summer stated that supervised consumption sites across the province had reversed more than 4,000 overdoses.

“Fix the management of ARCHES; don’t get rid of the services,” MacPherson said. “Don’t punish the clients and the people who use the sites just because the management might have screwed up.”

According to Alberta’s latest Opioid Response Surveillance Report, 142 people died of apparent accidental opioid poisoning in the first three months of 2020, which is down from 161 deaths during the same time last year.

But MacPherson said the COVID-19 pandemic has seen overdose numbers spike in places where more recent numbers are available, like B.C. and Ontario. Recent B.C. coroner’s data has found more concentrated fentanyl in overdose victims, suggesting drugs have become more toxic during the pandemic.

The government has directed Alberta Health Services to set up a motorhome-based mobile overdose prevention site as a temporary solution to facilitate access to transitional shelter, detox, and treatment referral while the government works on a longer-term strategy.

MacPherson said the mobile site will not fulfill the high demand for services or facilitate the important community connections only a permanent site can offer.

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