Canada’s health department has greenlit a safe drug consumption site in small town Alberta that will be the first of its kind in North America to allow users to smoke drugs under medical supervision. It’s a move that drug policy experts hope will be replicated to address the full spectrum of drug users, and not only those who inject or ingest.
Lethbridge harm reduction agency ARCHES will host the safe inhalation space — as well as supervised consumption services for people who inject, ingest, or snort their drugs — when their new facility opens next year. There are about 3,000 drug users in the southern Alberta city of about 93,000, healthcare professionals have said. The overdose rate there is strikingly higher than in other parts of the province.
Health Canada ramped up its approvals of legal supervised drug consumption sites over the last year as communities across the country continue to grapple with a worsening opioid overdose crises that’s expected to claim thousands of lives this year alone. The government recently eased the intense bureaucracy public health agencies had to complete in order to get the approvals.
So far 23 sites have received federal approvals to operate supervised drug consumption sites, though only 12 are currently offering services as the others complete the final regulatory requirements before opening. Seven other cities have pending applications with the department.
Marilou Gagnon, a nurse based in Ottawa who opened the city’s first unsanctioned pop-op overdose prevention site in August, told VICE News she’d like to see other federally approved sites offer inhalation services in order to meet the needs of drug users.
“Broader safe consumption is the way to go,” she said. “‘Safe injection’ is very narrow and in the current crisis I think we should expand the model that we use in Canada … It’s time we moved beyond safe injection,” Gagnon explained. She added that the smoking tent at her unsanctioned site in Brunet Park is more popular than the injection tent.
“We know that from drug testing that’s being done across the country, we can easily find fentanyl or carfentanil in what typically were seen as substances that didn’t pose those risks [such as crack and meth].”
Other unsanctioned overdose prevention sites like hers have also popped up in B.C. and in Toronto over the last year to offer users a safe space to inhale their drugs — usually in tents outdoors. But as the cold winter months approach, workers at the Ottawa and Toronto sites have been pushing city councils to allow them to offer their services indoors with city funding.