Operators of Alberta’s supervised drug-use sites are worried some might be shut down following the imminent release of a government report focused on claims of increased crime and disorder around the facilities.
Premier Jason Kenney has said the unreleased review confirms that social disorder has increased around the province’s seven drug-use sites and his government is contemplating closing or moving some of them. The facilities were opened by the previous NDP government in response to an opioid crisis that is killing nearly two Albertans daily.
Not all of the facilities, called “NDP drug sites” by Mr. Kenney, would be closed according to the Premier.
“It certainly is possible that some will be relocated. It’s never been our intention to shut all the sites, but we’re taking a very close look based on the data,” Mr. Kenney told reporters on Tuesday in Calgary. He has drawn attention over the past week to what he’s called a growing body of evidence that the sites cause crime.
The review panel commissioned to write the report was told not to consider the merits of the facilities, but rather to focus on how they affect neighbouring residents and businesses. Mr. Kenney said he’s not opposed to the sites, which are credited with reversing thousands of overdoses from the misuse of powerful opioids such as fentanyl, but he said the government could shift resources from the sites to more treatment and recovery beds.
“We see pretty much everywhere a marked increase in crime in the area of those sites, and social disorder and negative human consequences in many ways,” Mr. Kenney said.
Drug-use sites don’t increase social disorder, but they may focus it in certain areas, says Stacey Carmichael, the executive director of the group that operates an overdose prevention site in Red Deer. She said she was disappointed with the Premier’s rhetoric over the past week. “I wasn’t surprised by what he said, but how he said it,” Ms. Carmichael said.
Despite the Premier’s message that the sites have increased crime and disorder, she said no evidence exists that these sites lead to citywide increases in crime. The opening of the sites has corresponded with the emergence of the opioid crisis, as well as an economic downturn in Alberta that has seen the provincial economy shed thousands of jobs since 2014.
“The community will be at risk if we don’t go forward with these sites. Not just the people we work with, but the broader community. I feel likes these sites are being scapegoated right now. It’s challenging times and I understand that. But drug debris would increased without these sites, people will die,” Ms. Carmichael said.
Alberta Health’s funding for the sites expires at the end of March and the government has yet to indicate whether the money will continue.
The Red Deer group’s site is temporary, set up in a small trailer that serves about 164 people daily on average. The group was days away from breaking ground on a permanent site last year when the Kenney government put a hold on new drug-use sites. The group still has the location and funding ready to build, but is waiting for the freeze to lift.
“I thought honestly in Red Deer we were in a good place to go forward,” Ms. Carmichael said. “After the past week, I’m not so sure.”
Lethbridge City Council was presented with a report on Jan. 20 that looked into public perceptions about whether social disorder has increased with the drug crisis. A researcher in the southern Alberta city, home to one of North America’s busiest drug-use site, found that feelings of safety had dropped across the city. However, the report’s author cautioned that the small sample size and lack of objective measures mean the findings shouldn’t be used to inform public-policy decisions.
The report’s release made for the beginning of a rough week, according to Stacey Bourque, the executive director of the group that runs the site in Lethbridge. “It said that social disorder has gone up since the site opened, but we know in reality that services don’t cause social disorder. Poverty, trauma and homelessness drive social disorder, not services put in place to address it,” she said.
To help deal with concerns, the group provides around-the-clock security for all businesses within 60 metres of the site and has a contract to ensure all the garbage and needles in the neighbourhood are swept up.
According to Ms. Bourque the Lethbridge site, which gets about 22,000 visits monthly, is doing what it set out to do. She said data show needle use in the city is down, overdose deaths are declining, fewer cases of public drug use and HIV transmission are being recorded, and more people are going into treatment.
“It’s done everything the research said it would do and then some, but people are now expecting it to do something else,” she said. “The reality is that no one wants this near them.”