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Lethbridge council votes down motion to halt funding for supervised consumption site

Lethbridge council has voted down a motion that would have asked the province to immediately freeze funding for the southern Alberta city's supervised consumption site.

Councillor says users 'have been given goodie bags and Swiss chocolates from Costco'

Lethbridge city council will not be asking the province to halt funding for its supervised consumption site. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

After a heated debate on Monday, Lethbridge council voted down a motion that would have asked the province to halt funding for the city's only supervised consumption site.

Funding for new supervised consumption sites in Alberta is on hold while the province completes a review, and while the freeze hasn't affected sites that are already operating, one Lethbridge city councillor thought it should.

Council voted 6-3 against the motion, which was brought forward Monday by Coun. Blaine Hyggen.

Hyggen had pushed for funding to be withheld for ARCHES, the city's only supervised consumption site, until fall. He also argued for sterile needle distribution to be banned.

Site 'pumping with music and fun,' councillor says

"I've heard the SCS is pumping with music and fun … drug users have been given goodie bags and Swiss chocolates from Costco," Hyggen said during the debate.

He said drug users could be tourists travelling to the city to avail themselves of the site's Wi-Fi, food and drugs.

The supervised consumption site does not distribute drugs to users.

Mayor Chris Spearman hotly disputed Hyggen's comments, saying his remarks were unsubstantiated.

Spearman asked Hyggen to account for a claim he had made to local media that the city hadn't been informed the site would be set up. The city had been informed, Spearman said.

"He makes a whole opening speech full of unfounded allegations … you've cried wolf too many times, councillor," Spearman said.

Coun. Rob Miyashiro voted against Hyggen's motion.

"Do you want people in Lethbridge to die? Do you realize if we defund the supervised consumption site people will die?" he asked those in support.

Before the vote, hundreds rallied in front of city hall both for and against the city. Signs bore slogans such as "Harm reduction is scientifically proven" and "Lethbridge not Methbridge."

Coun. Joe Mauro, who voted in favour of Hyggen's motion, said he had hoped the vote would signal to the province the community's concerns about high drug use and needle debris.

"I think [a yes vote] would send a message to the province clearly … we've heard their frustrations."

ARCHES is one of the busiest supervised consumption sites in North America.

Between Feb. 28, 2018, and July 30, 2019, the site had more than 260,000 visits and responded to more than 2,500 medical emergencies.

The site also provides addiction counselling, housing supports and nursing services.

Jill Manning, director of operations at ARCHES, had said in the days leading up to the vote that potential cuts could have a devastating impact.

"Drug uses happening in our facility right now, those will flow into community," Manning said.

Needle distribution has reduced by 70 per cent in the last 18 months, and more needles are being returned to the site than are being handed out, according to Manning. It also operates a needle pick-up service.

Lethbridge has the second-highest per capita rate of fentanyl overdose deaths in Alberta.

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