'A system of chaos': Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee releases findings

The Alberta government released the findings of a highly anticipated review of the social and economic impacts of supervised consumption sites for drug users on Thursday.

UCP-appointed panel assessed impact of sites on crime rates, social order, property values and business

Person holds injection kit
An injection kit is shown at a supervised injection facility. The review of safe consumption sites was a United Conservative Party election promise, and its findings are to be released Thursday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government released the findings of a highly anticipated review of the social and economic impacts of supervised consumption sites for drug users on Thursday.

The UCP-appointed Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee was tasked last summer with looking into the effects of the sites on crime rates, social order, property values and businesses.

The panel did not consider the impact such facilities have on harm reduction, establishing new sites, provincial funding or housing in its review.

Associate minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan and Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer addressed the press ahead of the committee's remarks at Calgary's McDougall Centre.

"I'm deeply troubled with some of the findings of the report," Luan said.

"What we heard was a wake-up call. From increases in social disorder, to discarded needles ... what we see is a system of chaos."

Needle debris, quality control among UCP priorities: Luan

Luan said that in the wake of the report's findings, the government's priorities would include dealing with issues of needle debris, delivering quality control measures, and working closely across ministries to implement a "fair, firm and compassionate" approach toward addiction issues.

Rod Knecht, the committee's chair, said that the committee engaged 19,000 Albertans through public town halls, email submissions, and meetings with key stakeholders to compile its final report, which was submitted at the end of December 2019.

Committee vice-chair Geri Bemister-Williams said the "vast majority" of Albertans that they heard from care about their communities, neighbourhoods and neighbours, and "spoke passionately" about the changes in their neighbourhoods since the consumption sites opened.

Some businesses and stakeholders, Bemister-Williams said, told the committee that they had no input in the consultation process for the development of the safe consumption sites.

Committee calls overdose reversal success rate into question

The committee members also said that it found supervised consumption sites have cited "inaccurate" rates of reversing overdoses. 

A report published by the Alberta Community Council on HIV last year found that Alberta's supervised consumption sites have had a 100-per-cent success rate. But Bemister-Williams suggested that the committee found that the way overdose reversals are tracked and reported by safe consumption sites are not consistent.

She suggested that some recorded overdoses were minor events and involved the administration of oxygen rather than Naloxone.

  • Watch an excerpt from Bemister-Williams' exchange with reporters below:

Alberta safe consumption site panel

4 years ago
Duration 1:39
Featured VideoGeri Bemister-Williams, vice-chair of the panel, has a tense exchange with reporters asking about her concerns over "adverse effects" reporting from the sites.

"In many cases, 'adverse events' — even if non-life threatening or minor — are reported as overdoses, and the term 'reversal' is used when the response was a simple administration of oxygen," Bemister-Williams said. 

"This leaves the public with an inference that without these sites, thousands of people would fatally overdose or no longer be alive."

When pressed for details and asked whether the actions were life-saving, Bemister-Williams did not answer and said she was not there "to make assumptions."

CBC News referenced the report directly to clarify these statements, but Bemister-Williams quoted it directly; it also does not specify whether or not the oxygen that was provided in these instances was life-saving.

When asked at the press conference if this meant the previously cited 100 per cent success rate in reversing overdoses had been exaggerated, Bemister-Williams would only say that the committee found it was inaccurate.

Deaths around sites

Bemister-Williams told the press that the report's findings included a dramatic increase in opioid-related deaths in the areas surrounding the safe consumption sites.

"Although there have been no fatalities at any of the sites, opioid-related deaths increased within the immediate vicinity of the sites after they opened," Bemister-Williams said.

In a reference to the city of Lethbridge, she cited a 400 per cent increase in fatalities around some sites. According to the data in the report, the fatalities have jumped from one person to five people.

However, the title of the data table used within the report that reflects an increase of deaths surrounding the sites appears to include deaths by alcohol poisoning as well was drugs.

A breakdown of these figures was not provided within the report.

The Committee cited an increase in opioid-related deaths since sites were opened across the province, but the table used to reflect the data includes deaths by alcohol poisoning. (Supplied by Impact: A socio-economic review of supervised consumption sites in Alberta)

Crime, Bemister-Williams said, had "increased substantially" near most of the sites, and told the media that citizens reported undertaking measures to feel safer "on their own" like building fences and installing lights. 

Every community reported an increase in needle debris on public and private property, Bemister-Williams said, as well as feces and garbage.

"Despite efforts to address needle debris … many community members still felt this was woefully inadequate. Of note, several schools near the sites have implemented needle pickup committees," she said.

"We heard from families that they were avoiding public parks altogether."

In conclusion, Bemister-Williams said the committee "recommends the government consider the accounts of Albertans who took the time to share their views."

Committee members Bemister-Williams and Knecht — along with ministers Luan and Schweitzer — did not take further questions after the press conference.

Review sparked debate, concern across province

A review of safe injection sites was a United Conservative Party election promise that sparked a fiery political — and ideological — debate in Alberta.

Last year, Luan said the panel would fulfil the UCP's pledge 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.

Some sites became controversial as reports reflected an increases in crime and calls for law enforcement services that coincided with their opening.

In January, Lethbridge NDP MLA Shannon Phillips told the Canadian Press that closing the site in her city would be devastating.

"People would die," Phillips said.

Front-line support workers also appealed to the panel for support during meetings across the province.

Trent Daley, a support worker with the George Spady Society, told a government review panel in September, "This is a non-partisan issue. This is about, 'Do these people deserve to live?'"

There are currently seven sites across the province — in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge — with proposals for one each in Red Deer and Medicine Hat, and another one in Calgary.

Report underscores concerns: Kenney

Earlier this year, Premier Jason Kenney said that it's possible Alberta could close or relocate some supervised drug consumption sites.

He said in Calgary on Jan. 21 that he had seen the panel's preliminary report.

"It underscores the concerns that we have had about the negative impact on people and on communities as a result of at least some of the drug injection sites," Kenney said.

"They're now more than injections … they're just illegal drug sites. I think we see pretty much everywhere a marked increase in crime in the area of those sites and social disorder and negative human consequences."

The panel and its members

The eight members of the supervised consumption site review committee. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The full list of 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.

With files from The Canadian Press, Joel Dryden and Tricia Kindleman