Corbella: New rules for drug consumption sites will help people get help and save lives

'This is not about denying anyone access to a supervised consumption site, it's about helping them gain access to other treatments. We want to help people, not harm them,' said Mike Ellis, associate minister of Mental Health and Addictions

Licia Corbella 5 minute read January 12, 2022

Mike Ellis, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, takes part in a press conference in Edmonton on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. David Bloom/Postmedia

An unscientific poll conducted outside of a supervised consumption site Tuesday finds that new provincial rules requiring illicit drug users to provide their provincial health-care number when they access such a service won’t act as a barrier.

Of the 15 people with addictions I interviewed Tuesday afternoon just outside of Safeworks at Calgary’s Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre, none had a problem with the prospect of providing their health-care card to access the site.

“You mean we don’t have to already?” asked Jennifer-Lynn.

“I thought they had that info somewhere on file. I mean, I want them (staff) to know who I am and have my health-care number,” said the 39-year-old who is currently living at the Calgary Drop-In Centre and is addicted to fentanyl and meth, and has been using drugs since the age of 16.

“I have some health conditions, so if I need medical care they need to know what my issues are,” she said. Sporting two black eyes and what appears to be a broken nose from a beating she took Monday night following a “misunderstanding” with another woman, Jennifer-Lynn says she’s had too many friends die from overdoses over the past few years, so she’s eager to see new approaches tried.

“We can’t keep on doing the same things over and over and expect things to improve, so I think it’s worth a try,” she said.

Jennifer-Lynn, 39, said on January 11, 2022 that she wants staff at safe consumption sites to have her health-care number because she has underlying health conditions that doctors need to know should she fall ill. Licia Corbella/ Postmedia

Starting Jan. 31, all people who use a supervised consumption site (SCS) in Alberta will be asked for their provincial health-care number.

It’s just one of a suite of new guidelines the Alberta government is introducing to ensure supervised consumption sites adhere to certain standards — such as providing safe and clean washroom facilities to their clients, cleaning up needle debris in the vicinity and connecting clients with community supports to get them into recovery and housing as often as possible.

On Monday, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice R. Paul Belzil dismissed an interlocutory injunction application aiming to stop portions of these new regulations — called the Recovery-oriented Overdose Prevention Services Guidefrom moving forward — namely by the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society (LOPS) and Moms Stop the Harm Society (MSTH). Neither group was available for interviews Tuesday.

In the judgment, both applicants warn that people will die because they will refuse to go to an SCS if they are asked for a health-care number.

Mike Ellis, Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, said he’s pleased with Justice Belzil’s 12-page ruling that allows these new standards.

“This is going to be a huge opportunity because it gives the province the ability to help people through the health-care system, especially when it comes to addiction,” said Ellis, who was interviewed via telephone Tuesday.

Ellis vowed that no person will ever be denied access to an SCS if they don’t provide their health-care number.

“This is not about denying anyone access to a supervised consumption site, it’s about helping them gain access to other treatments. We want to help people, not harm them,” he added.

“Addiction is a complex health-care issue,” said Ellis, who said he came to know this intimately during his 12 years working as a Calgary Police Service officer, including as a patrol sergeant.

“We want to be able to get people help and we’re going to be able to do this better and more seamlessly with these changes, so we’re very excited to become the first jurisdiction in Canada to regulate supervised consumption sites with quality standards that will help keep surrounding communities safe and will connect clients to the health-care system to help them access recovery, housing and other services,” said Ellis.

“One thing I hear time and time again, and that I learned over my time working in law enforcement, is that you have just a very small window of opportunity when somebody who’s facing an addiction has that kind of a moment of realization that they need and want help to get into recovery,” said Ellis. “When that moment comes, we have to make sure it’s available to them right away.”

The province has opened 8,000 new addiction treatment spots since being elected in April 2019 and started new programs that have saved lives, including Alberta’s Virtual Opioid Dependency Program and Digital Overdose Response System, an app that will call EMS if the opioid user doesn’t respond to louder and more frequent alarms on their phone after ingesting an opioid.

“Lives are being saved every day, but more needs to be done,” says Ellis.

Data show that the fourth COVID-19 wave in September and October further fuelled opioid-related fatalities.

The office of the chief medical examiner reported 146 opioid-related fatalities in September and 148 in October. This trend is being seen in other jurisdictions, including in British Columbia where 201 suspected overdose deaths were recorded in October alone.

By encouraging clients of safe consumption sites to provide their health-care number or to be helped to apply for one if they don’t have one, the transition into recovery treatment will be much smoother and quicker.

Brian, 38, who is addicted to fentanyl and meth and was guarding a friend’s shopping cart filled with their possessions just outside the doors of Safeworks, said he knows through experience that when someone struggling with an addiction wants to get into treatment the window of opportunity is slim and fast.

“If you don’t get action quickly you get sucked right back in again and then get stuck in that cycle and the opportunity is lost, so I think ensuring the system has your (health-care) number could be really helpful.”

Brian, 38, a fentanyl and meth user said January 11, 2022, he has no problem providing the staff at SafeWorks with his provincial health-care card and thinks trying to have each user of safe consumption sites provide one might actually help illicit drug users access recovery faster when they so decide. Licia Corbella/ Postmedia

Brian, for instance, says he has a health-care number but he’s had all of his identification stolen and needs to apply again. Perhaps Safeworks will help him apply for his ID.

Too many people are dying from this parallel epidemic. Something has to be done. Here’s hoping this latest tool will save many lives.

Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist in Calgary.

Twitter: @LiciaCorbella


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