Alberta draws fire after naming panel to review impacts of supervised consumption sites

An Alberta government-appointed panel to examine the social and economic impacts of supervised consumption sites for drug users will not consider the health benefits of such sites or the social issues surrounding drug abuse.

8-member panel will be led by former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht

Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, announced on Monday who will sit on an eight-member panel that will examine the socio-economic effects of supervised consumption sites. (CBC)

An Alberta government-appointed panel to examine the social and economic impacts of supervised consumption sites for drug users will not consider the health benefits of such sites or the social issues surrounding drug abuse.

"We're trying to balance the system," Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, said Monday.

"The existing government already has a wealth of information supporting the merits of supervised consumption sites. The community side of impact seems to be left out."

But the New Democrat Opposition called the panel rigged, saying it is "stacked with advocates of the discredited 1980s-era 'abstinence-only' approach."

The NDP wants Luan to drop the review and expand supervised consumption services in Alberta.

"It doesn't include a single person who provided these services. It also doesn't include a single voice for harm reduction," said Heather Sweet, Opposition critic for mental health and addictions.

Luan announced Monday that the province has appointed eight people to the Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee.

It will be chaired by former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht. 

The panel members are:

  • Rod Knecht, who retired as Edmonton's chief of police last year.
  • Vice-chair Geri Bemister-Williams, who is a human behavioural scientist and post-secondary instructor.
  • Dr. Ray Baker, who specializes in occupational addiction medicine and recovery-oriented continuing care.
  • Steve Cormack, who served 24 years with the RCMP.
  • Dr. Charl Els, a psychiatrist, addiction specialist and occupational physician.
  • Joan Hollihan, who lost her 16-year-old son to an apparent fentanyl overdose.
  • Paul Maxim, a former professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University.
  • Dr. Rob Tanguay, the founder and medical director of a post-surgical pain outpatient program.

The panel also doesn't include a member from south of Calgary, despite Lethbridge reportedly having the busiest supervised consumption site in North America.

Luan said the panel fulfils the UCP's promise to correct what it saw as the failure of the previous NDP government to take into consideration the effect that supervised consumption sites have on the areas where they are set up.

"We've heard Albertans' concerns about impacts on their homes, businesses and communities. We've chosen a panel of experts to listen to Albertans, review the evidence and report back on their findings," he said.

    Panel won't look at efficacy in curbing addiction

    The panel's scope of purview explicitly excludes it from looking at evidence for or against the efficacy of the consumption sites at curbing drug addiction.

    But Luan said that's because the evidence is already well established that the facilities do play a role in harm reduction.

    "It makes no sense to go over from Square 1," he said.

    The Opposition argued that scope leaves out the most crucial aspect of the review.

    "It is staggering to learn that Minister Luan thinks saving a human life has no socio-economic benefit," Sweet said. 

    "The deaths of those Albertans who would have been kept alive at one of our current or proposed supervised consumption sites will be on Premier Kenney and Minister Luan."

    Calgary's consumption site in the Beltline has been the subject of ongoing complaints since it opened about an increase in crime and social disorder in the area.

    Last month, Luan came under fire for a tweet, which he later deleted, saying he wondered if the research supporting supervised consumption sites was funded by Big Pharma.

    Asked whether his view on the matter had changed, he said, "Well, I delete that, so if it's valid, I wouldn't have done that."

    No curtailment of services while review takes place

    In June, the province said it was freezing funding for any new consumption sites until it conducted a review.

    Luan said on Monday that there won't be any curtailment of existing services while the review is going on.

    "I want to assure Albertans that while we're conducting the review, no change for the current services. So the current services will be maintained until we're finished the fact-finding exercise," he said.

    The panel will hold public engagement sessions over three weeks in September in every community where supervised consumption sites are already operating or are proposed.

    Albertans will also be able to submit feedback online.

    With files from Lucie Edwardson, The Canadian Press


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