Safe injection sites needed in suburbs, says mother of fentanyl overdose victim

A mother whose 25-year-old son died after a fentanyl overdose is calling for more treatment for people in suburbs who use drugs.

'When you look at deaths in the suburbs, a lot occur because people inject alone,' Petra Schulz says

Staff at safe consumption sites can prevent overdose deaths and it is recommended that users access these sites wherever possible. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

A Sherwood Park mother whose 25-year-old son died from a fentanyl overdose is calling for more treatment for drug users who live in the suburbs.

Plans for four safe injection sites in central Edmonton were announced Wednesday. Three will be located in inner-city agencies and the fourth will be at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. All the locations are in the city's central core.

Petra Schulz lost her son, Danny to a fentanyl overdose in 2014. He died in his downtown Edmonton apartment.

Schulz said her son struggled with social anxiety and started to self-medicate, at first with OxyContin and other pharmaceutical drugs he bought on the street.

When OxyContin became difficult to obtain, he later progressed to heroin and other street drugs, she said.

Danny tried to get off drugs several times but would relapse, his mother said. She said his fatal overdose was on fentanyl that he believed was counterfeit OxyContin.

While Schulz is supportive of safe injection sites in central Edmonton, she said people in the suburbs need to be kept safe too.

"When you look at deaths in the suburbs, a lot occur because people inject alone, and again that is greatly related to stigma and lack of education," she said.

Schulz would like to see some blunt education in the school curriculum aimed at reducing harm for people taking drugs.

Part of that would be that people should never do drugs alone, she said, and to always have a naloxone kit available while taking drugs.

Petra Schulz lost her son, Danny, to a fentanyl overdose in 2014. (CBC)

Majority of overdose deaths happen in suburbs

A report from Edmonton police and Edmonton Fire Rescue services presented to city councillors last week showed that 85 per cent of people who died of fentanyl overdoses last year were outside the inner city.

Those most at risk are men between the ages of 16 and 34 who live in suburban areas, the report said.

"This is not a homeless, addicted issue," Mayor Don Iveson said earlier this month. "This is in pretty much every neighbourhood."

Safe injection sites work, said Dr. Hakique Virani, an addiction medicine and public health specialist at the University of Alberta.

"Not a single person has ever died in a safe injection site," Virani said.

Dr. Hakik Virani says someone dies every 18 to 19 hours of a fentanyl overdose every day in Alberta. (CBC)

A public health emergency?

He's glad to see safe injection sites being planned for Edmonton but still doesn't think the province is doing enough to prevent overdose deaths.

"The refusal to declare a public health emergency in Alberta is problematic," he said.

"Our governments have unfortunately demonstrated that in spite of the best efforts they're putting forward, the problem is getting worse. Alberta is losing one person from fentanyl alone every 18 or 19 hours."

Declaring a public health emergency would mean more resources to help fight drug overdoses, he said.

If I can go get my blood pressure checked, I should also be able to get my mental health and my addictions issues looked after in primary care.- Petra Schulz

A government spokesperson said Wednesday that declaring a public health emergency remains a possibility.

"The government of Alberta is taking substantial action in response to the opioid crisis," Laura Ehrkamp, press secretary to Health Minister Sarah Hoffman, said in an emailed statement.

"Declaring a public health emergency has been seriously considered and has not been ruled out. An emergency declaration is not required at this time to enable further action."

Schulz said it needs to be easier for people to get treatment for addictions.

"I would like to see it become part of primary health care," she said.

"If I can go get my blood pressure checked, I should also be able to get my mental health and my addictions issues looked after in primary care."

The safe injection sites in central Edmonton are scheduled to open within a year.


Nola Keeler is an award-winning journalist who has worked with CBC in Whitehorse, Yukon and Edmonton since 2000. She has worked as a host, reporter, news reader and producer for CBC. Send story ideas to nola.keeler@cbc.ca.