Supervised injection site advocates push back against UCP government

The Alberta government's response to the escalating opioid overdose crisis is being harshly criticized by a group of health-care professionals and community activists who fear more deaths as a result of a 'foolish, flawed and coercive' approach to treating people with addictions.

Province's approach to addiction called 'foolish, flawed and coercive'

Supporters of an unsanctioned drug injection site joined hands to protect a tent they've been using to help drug addicts in Lethbridge. The tent was set up for a news conference and was not offering supervised injection services. However, a woman showed up at the park and started tearing it down. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The Alberta government's response to the escalating opioid overdose crisis is being harshly criticized by a group of health-care professionals and community activists who fear more deaths as a result of a "foolish, flawed and coercive" approach to treating people with addictions.

"What we are struggling to understand is why is this government choosing to harm Albertans?"  

It's one of the questions the group is asking in an open letter to Jason Luan, Alberta's Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. 

The group says that since the government pulled funding for Arches, a non-profit organization that ran the city's only supervised drug injection site, it effectively denied Albertans a standard of medical care, which includes harm reduction programs such as overdose prevention sites.

"Physicians are obligated to provide this level of care, and harm reduction, including safe consumption, is the accepted standard of care," they said in the letter. 

Dr. Susan Adelmann, a family physician, wrote an open letter to Alberta's associate minister of mental health and addictions to say the province's approach to addictions services is "flawed, foolish and coercive." (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Supporters of expanded harm reduction services gathered in Lethbridge on Thursday in a park near downtown to express concern about the government's decision to scale back overdose prevention services. 

A family physician who wrote the letter with input from other doctors in this city of 100,000 says she felt it was important to speak out and says she has nothing to lose.

"I'm tired of people dehumanizing my patients. I'm tired of facing barriers when I try to get them help," said Dr. Susan Adelmann.

"This affects everyone, and we need to talk about it more, the more we keep it under wraps, and the more we pretend it's not there, the uglier and uglier it gets," she said.

The physicians who signed the letter say the minister did not thoroughly investigate the impact the closure of Arches would have on people with addictions.

"We would like to state unequivocally that the minister obviously did not hear our patients or front-line staff, did not investigate truly, and is choosing to act in absence of facts with a plan that runs contrary to time-honoured principles of medical ethics," the letter reads.

This summer, Alberta halted funding for Arches after a government-ordered audit found $1.6 million of public money unaccounted for. The site closed Aug. 31.

Following the closure of Arches, the government opened a mobile site that reduced the number of drug injection booths from 13 to 3. 

Regardless, the physicians say the truck "is not adequate by any means" because of the reduced capacity and hours of operation, which went from 24 hours a day at Arches to 20 at the mobile site. 

The minister has said the mobile service — which sees between 40 and 60 people a day with capacity for up to 200 per day — is "more than adequate" for Lethbridge.

However, he says the mobile site is likely a temporary measure.

"We're still currently working with the municipality, service providers and others try to come up with a long-term solution to have a permanent overdose prevention site in Lethbridge."

The physicians say that when the truck first opened, some people "had to wait five to six hours for their opportunity to use in a
supervised setting." 

They say that doesn't meet the demand since "many of our patients need to use every two to three hours" to prevent severe withdrawal symptoms.

They say those people simply went elsewhere to use, increasing their risk of overdose, disease through needle sharing and discarded drug paraphernalia being left on sidewalks, parks, streets and alleys.

Event disrupted by lone protestor

Organizers who have been offering unsanctioned, supervised consumption services in Lethbridge set up their orange tent at London Road Park as part of the media event Thursday and drew attention from one of their most vocal critics.

Sarah Villebrun marched over to the tent and started pulling it apart, saying she was upset it was close to her children's bus stop. Organizers tried to explain that it wasn't being used for injections, but was instead being used as a back drop for the news conference.  

Sarah Villebrun is seen tearing down a tent that is owned by the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society. She was on the phone with police at the time complaining that the tent was set up near her children's bus stop. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Lethbridge police officers arrived about 15 minutes later after tensions had eased. It's unclear if any charges are being considered. Tim Slaney says they are checking the tent for damage and still have to decide whether they will pursue a charge of property damage.

Mistrust, coercive treatment

Dr. Adelmann says there's an issue of mistrust for clients who use the mobile site.

"As a condition of service, clients are forced to agree to referrals for detox and treatment. We have noted that these treatment centres are run by 'friends of the UCP' who also sit on the provincial Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Council who stands to benefit financially from an approach to addictions that is costing lives? Shameful," stated the letter.

Luan calls the statement "gross misinformation" and points out the services are being provided by non-profit organizations.  A spokesperson for the minister adds that "clients are not being forced to agree to referrals for detox and treatment." 

The most recent data shows Lethbridge has the highest per-capita rate of opioid overdose deaths in the province through the first six months of 2020. The rate is 42.4 deaths per 100,000 people, one and a half times the provincial rate and almost double the rate in Calgary.

Slaney, a former employee at Arches who is spearheading the unsanctioned drug injection site, hopes the letter to Luan will make a difference.

"I think lots of folks in the provincial government have kind of deluded themselves into thinking everyone's on their side. What we're going to see is a lot of people are starting to step up and say no, the province doesn't represent us. And we do believe that this tent has an important role to play in the community," he said.

His group, which has been ticketed and charged for violating city bylaws that require permits for tents in city parks, now faces thousands of dollars in fines. The group has been setting up in Galt Gardens, a downtown park described as the epicentre of the city's opioid overdose crisis. 

Slaney says police have been showing up at the park in larger numbers and even with the canine unit. 

"We're just seeing a real ramp up in police turnout. I think they're just trying to create a no-go zone in the park in general to try to starve us out a little," he said.

They physicians say they will continue to prescribe opiate agonist treatment and opiates and distribute clean needles and will continue to push for supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention sites.

"We will do this while treating our patients with real, judgment-free compassion, regardless of their race or interest in attending a treatment centre. With or without this government, we will continue to respect the principles of medical ethics that existed well before the current UCP regime," reads their letter to Luan.

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

About the Author

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.