AHS to take over Red Deer overdose prevention site, turn it into mobile operation

The mobile unit will first operate at the site of the current overdose prevention site but may move. 

Turning Point had operated site since 2018

A mobile trailer in a parking lot with three cars and two people.
The overdose prevention site in Red Deer will now be operated by Alberta Health Services. (Heather Marcoux/CBC)

Alberta Health Services is taking over an overdose prevention site in Red Deer and turning it into a mobile operation. 

Non-profit society Turning Point had been operating the site since 2018. 

A news release sent Friday morning said the transition will take three to six months. The mobile unit will first operate at the site of the current overdose prevention site but may move. 

In a written statement sent late Friday afternoon, Stacey Charmichael, executive director of Turning Point, called the announcement "unexpected." 

"We were surprised by this decision and are still unsure of its rationale," she said.

Staff learned about the change after someone overheard a public conversation between a Red Deer city councillor and someone from the provincial government.

Charmichael said Turning Point will continue to provide high standards of care throughout the transition. She warned that moving too quickly could make people hesitant to use the service again. She urged AHS to ensure the new mobile unit has the same capacity as the current facility. 

Charmichael said the site was visited 168,957 times since it opened Oct. 1, 2018. Staff at the facility have responded to 5,490 adverse events where users needed medical intervention. 

Mental Health and Addictions Nicholas Milliken said in an interview with CBC News that the change in Red Deer is modelled on how the government moved to a mobile site in Lethbridge after closing the supervised consumption site in 2020. He said keeping the service mobile means it can be easily moved if required. 

"We saw a lot of success with that," Milliken said. " And so as we increased the level of standards for these sites, we found that AHS was a great partner for doing this. And so we're emulating that with Red Deer."

Millken said the previous NDP government imposed the overdose prevention site on Red Deer without consultation. He says he has been working on the issue with Mayor Ken Johnston, city council and the community.

Lethbridge closure caused harm

Petra Schulz, one of the founders of Moms Stop the Harm, said she was devastated when she heard about the government's decision. She asked if anyone talked to people who used the site before making the change. 

"That is really who we should be talking to," she said. "These are the people who are going to die if things aren't done right."

Although Milliken said the changes in Lethbridge went well, the academics behind a newly published study disagree. 

Last year, three criminology professors: Katharina Maier from the University of Winnipeg, Carolyn Greene from Athabasca University and Marta-Marika Urbanik from the University of Alberta, interviewed 50 people in Lethbridge who use drugs. 

They were asked about their experiences using the supervised consumption site (SCS) before it closed in 2020 and the new mobile site operated by AHS. The results were published in the International Journal of Drug Policy last month.

"We found that the closure of the SCS produced and exacerbated harm for people who use drugs in Lethbridge," Maier said. 

Maier said many people had good things to say about the supervised consumption site that was located downtown. They talked about the range of services, the opportunity for social connection and how they felt safe and supported. 

In contrast, people weren't as enthusiastic about the mobile site which had been moved to an industrial area of the city. It didn't offer as many services. Fewer people used it because they didn't feel safe and it was harder to get to, she said. 

"People reported verbal and physical assaults on their way to the site," Maier said. "They felt unsafe crossing the bridge and also the area of that new mobile site was also experienced by many as unsafe."


Michelle Bellefontaine

Provincial affairs reporter

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature for CBC News in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada.