Unsanctioned supervised consumption site in Lethbridge draws protests

Tempers flared near an unsanctioned supervised drug injection site that sprung up in Lethbridge over the weekend as protesters prevented the pop-up form offering its services.

'We want people who are taking drugs, to live long, full lives,' says organizer of pop-up site

An unsanctioned drug injection site opened in Lethbridge on Friday night, three weeks after the province pulled funding for ARCHES, a non-profit that had been operating Canada's busiest injection site. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Tempers flared near an unsanctioned supervised drug injection site that sprung up in Lethbridge over the weekend.

Organizers with the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society tried to set up their orange tent for a second night in Galt Gardens, a downtown park that has been called the epicentre of the city's opioid crisis.

But organizer Tim Slaney, a harm reduction advocate in Lethbridge, said angry, aggressive protesters were there waiting for them, so they moved a few blocks away, and the protesters followed.

At that point, Slaney said they felt it was unsafe to let anyone come in for a supervised injection. So his team instead referred people to Alberta Health Services' mobile site.

"I don't consider it a victory for my opponents. Because honestly, we were in this for the long game," he said.

The unsanctioned supervised consumption site was set up just days after the province revealed the city of 100,000 has the highest per-capita rate of opioid overdose deaths in Alberta — and three weeks after the government stopped funding ARCHES.

The non-profit society had been operating Canada's busiest injection site, which saw on average 500 visits a day to its 13 injection booths and two inhalation rooms.

The province pulled funding for ARCHES after a financial audit found evidence of mismanagement and misuse of government funding. 

To replace the shuttered ARCHES facility, the province brought in a mobile truck with just three consumption booths. 

Slaney says he makes no apologies for what his group is doing.

"We're worried about our community, we're worried about the people who live there. We want people who are taking drugs, to live long, full lives, and we want everyone to just recognise that we need to have a conversation, and that a conversation needs to happen calmly, where we can all sit down and kind of share opinions and work constructively," he said.

"It can't happen with screaming, it can't happen with yelling."

The province issued a statement to CBC News from Alberta's associate minister of mental health and addiction, saying the site is illegal and is in contravention of the Criminal Code of Canada.

In a joint statement, city officials and the Lethbridge police said they are monitoring the pop up site for illegal activity.

"Further investigation and evidence would be required to support a charge related to drug consumption," the statement said.

Officials also noted that the organizers have not obtained a permit for the tent, in violation of city rules.

"Both the City of Lethbridge and LPS would encourage anyone needing overdose prevention services to visit the … sanctioned overdose prevention site, operated by Alberta Health Services in Lethbridge," the statement added. 

Meanwhile, two married Edmonton nurses say the UCP government's approach to harm reduction is a factor in their decision to leave Alberta.

Registered nurses say they're leaving for B.C.

At a Monday news conference organized by the Alberta NDP, registered nurses Heather and Darrell Adams said they've found work in B.C. and are leaving on Tuesday.

Heather Adams works at an Edmonton supervised consumption site and said she doesn't feel the provincial government supports her work.

"In the last year, it's been a huge concern whether or not we will continue to get funded," she said. "Once we saw that Lethbridge got shut down abruptly, we as a family realized that we needed to look for jobs a little bit more urgently."

Her spouse works at a complex medical detoxification unit at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton that also uses a harm reduction approach.

"I've really got to witness the cause and effect of that model and how much difference we've been able to make with our clients who are coming in and seeking help, and meeting them where they're at," he said.

Concern about potential wage rollbacks and reduced school supports for their son, who has disabilities, are also reasons for the move, they said.

With files from Bryan Labby and Janet French