Dozens of harm reduction groups nationwide signed onto an open letter released Monday urging the Alberta government to reinstate funding for Lethbridge’s only supervised drug consumption site.
The letter comes as the consumption site, run by the AIDS Outreach Community Harm Reduction Education Support Society (ARCHES) marks its final day of operations after the United Conservative government stripped its funding when
The site closure coincides with International Overdose Awareness Day, timing that advocates say is a cruel irony.
“The closure of Lethbridge’s supervised consumption service (SCS) on this day is abhorrent and will undoubtedly result in more overdose incidents and deaths,” reads the open letter, addressed to Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan, as well as Premier Jason Kenney.
At up to 800 visits each day, the ARCHES site had been the busiest supervised consumption site in North America.
, ARCHES will have until Sept. 30 to vacate the space.
There are currently no plans for another fixed consumption site in Lethbridge, but a mobile site operated by Alberta Health Services opened Aug. 17 blocks away from the ARCHES site.
Joey Blood is an Indigenous recovery coach with ARCHES and a Blood Tribe elder who has helped countless people seeking help for addictions in Lethbridge. He will continue working thanks to federal funding, but many of his peers doing harm reduction work in the city will lose their jobs as the supervised consumption site closes.
“Shutting this down will be a huge impact on the city. There’s amazing work going on. We’re necessary but, unfortunately, people didn’t treat it as such,” Blood said. “There will be more overdoses . . . We’ll be starting from ground zero.”
Blood acknowledged the findings of the audit into ARCHES but said he believed it was wrong for the whole organization to be shut down because of it.
He noted that other services, including needle cleanup and community outreach, would also be lost. He said the temporary site is not capable of meeting demand in the community.
The most recent data on opioid-related deaths released by the Alberta government only encompasses the
, largely before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Provincial officials have said statistics through June will be made available “within the next few weeks.”
Some experts worry trends in British Columbia, which recently marked a third-straight month with more than 170 overdose deaths,
Bonnie Larson, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine and a physician, also works with people who use drugs. She said it’s difficult to make conclusions without data but believes Alberta is likely suffering the same “dual public health crisis” of opioids and COVID-19 seen in other provinces.
“Every province is seeing not just an increase or a trending upwards. It’s a doubling or tripling of overdoses,” Larson said. “It is shocking that they’re outright closing this facility. . . . This is an essential, life-saving service.”
Larson likened ARCHES to a hospital given the scope of services offered.
“It’s like replacing a hospital with a walk-in clinic,” she said. “You have to maintain a service for people who need it and are at risk.”
In a statement Sunday, the provincial government defended its decision to defund ARCHES.
“An audit of ARCHES in Lethbridge showed significant abuse of taxpayer dollars, unaccounted for funds, and mismanagement of the organization,” said Kassandra Kitz, press secretary to Luan. “The Government of Alberta cannot, in good conscience, provide millions in taxpayer dollars to an organization that has failed to manage them appropriately.”
Kitz said the province is working with municipal officials and other stakeholders to establish a long-term strategy for drug users in Lethbridge.
Blood said he wants provincial officials to listen to the experiences and needs of those who work at and use supervised consumption sites.
“They need to treat this seriously,” he said. “It’s just not going to fix the problem, shutting down the consumption site.”
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