Alberta explores 'safe consumption sites' in face of fentanyl crisis

Alberta is inching toward opening supervised drug consumption sites as the province continues to wrestle with a wave of overdose deaths caused by the deadly opioid fentanyl.

'We think this is the right thing to do,' associate health minister says

The province is funding a study into the development of safe consumption sites for drug users (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Alberta is inching toward opening supervised drug consumption sites as the province continues to wrestle with a wave of overdose deaths caused by the deadly opioid fentanyl.

With 193 fatal fentanyl overdoses in Alberta this year as of Sept. 30, the provincial government is providing almost $750,000 to groups that want to open safe drug-use facilities.

"The evidence is really clear that supervised consumption saves lives," associate health minister Brandy Payne said  Thursday. "We think this is the right thing to do." 

Payne was speaking in Edmonton where Access to Medically Supervised Injection Services Edmonton (AMSISE) has spent almost five years advocating for its cause. The group will receive $230,000 to help with community consultation, finding a site location, and preparing a formal application to the federal government.

Another $500,000 will go to other Alberta communities, including Calgary, to investigate similar services.

"Five years ago, I wasn't so sure [this would happen]," said Shelley Williams of AMSISE. "We do have the support of many people … I do have confidence this will take place."

Federal approval required

Safe consumption sites allow users to take their drugs under the supervision of a nurse, who can monitor for an overdose. Sterile needles are provided.

Canada's only supervised injection sites are in Vancouver. Any such facility requires an exemption from the federal health minister under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Vancouver was the first city in North America to open a legal, supervised injection site. The operation, named Insite, has been operating since 2003.

Williams said AMSISE isn't proposing a "storefront" model like Insite. Rather, the group wants to open a space within an already existing social organization, where users can also access other services.

It could take up to eight months for AMSISE to submit a formal application to the federal government, and it's unclear how long that approval process may take.

Williams said such a facility is just one part of a drug strategy that must also include prevention and treatment.

Petra Schulz has been an Edmonton advocate for a supervised drug consumption service. Her son, Danny, died of a fentanyl overdose in 2014. (CBC)

'Danny was alone'

Danny Schulz was 25 when he died from a fentanyl overdose in 2014. His mother, Petra Schulz, has worked ever since to raise awareness about drug addiction.

"The missing ingredient for us and for Danny was harm reduction," Schulz said on Thursday. "Despite the evidence to the contrary, what we were presented with as families was focused solely on abstinence, which can be difficult. People relapse and the consequences can be devastating.

"Danny was alone and there was nobody there to assist him when he overdosed."

While the move to create consumption sites is new for Alberta, the NDP government has indicated its top priority is to expand existing opioid replacement therapy programs. There are currently 160 physicians in the province licensed to provide suboxone as a way to control drug cravings for patients with an opioid dependency.

The plan is to move those who are stable in replacement therapy programs into family doctors' offices, to open new spots for opioid users.

Fentanyl is considered 100 times more potent than morphine.