Supervised drug-use sites will save lives: experts

People on the front lines of Alberta's drug crisis believe the move towards programs which will allow people to take drugs under supervision will save many lives.

Alberta government supports a federal application in response to the opioid crisis

Insite in Vancouver was the first city in North America to open a supervised injection site (CBC News)

Experts on the front lines of the deadly opioid crisis are describing the province's move to support drug consumption services as a breakthrough in Alberta.

The measure to explore programs where people can take drugs under medical supervision was one of a number of steps announced Thursday by the Notley government.

The action is in response to 193 fatal fentanyl overdoses in Alberta this year as of Sept. 30.

"It's quite literally the difference between life and death," said public health and addictions specialist Dr. Hakique Virani, adding the move is overdue, given the opioid crisis is claiming more than one life every day in the province.

"We know from Insite in Vancouver that there has not been a single fatal overdose amongst people who have used that service, and that's because they can do so in the presence of people who are equipped to save lives if there is an overdose," said Virani.

Dr. Hakique Virani said a safe drug consumption site could make the difference between life and death. (CBC)

Insite is the name of Vancouver's supervised injection site. In 2003, Vancouver was the first city in North America to get such a program up and running.

Work will be starting soon to begin a process for a similar facility in Edmonton. The process hinges on an extensive application to the federal government that could take up to eight months to complete.

That means it won't be until next summer at the earliest that the federal government has the application and can then work on the approval process.

But approval could happen quickly if all 26 conditions are met.

"What this is going to do is to provide an opportunity for people to come in and be able first of all be safe, and then also to connect with services that can help them perhaps stabilize their lives," said Marliss Taylor, program manager for the Edmonton harm reduction program Streetworks.

Marliss Taylor said a supervised consumption site will allow drug users to connect to other services (CBC News)

Streetworks has been pushing for this type of program for years.

In the last six months alone, it has handed out 1.13 million sterile needles for drug users in Edmonton.

That compares with 1.75 million needles in all of 2015, indicating a drug crisis that continues to escalate.

The program believes those numbers illustrate the critical need for a supervised site where people can finally take drugs safely.

"We are not going to get rid of them. We need to be doing things a bit differently. What this is going to do is to help with keeping individuals safer and healthier, but communities as well," said Taylor.

She said supervised sites would also lead to better control and disposal of used needles.

Streetworks is one of 25 agencies that are part of a coalition called Medically Supervised Injection Services Edmonton or AMSISE, which will be making the application to the federal government.

No site has been chosen at this point, but it would likely be in a space within an existing social organization where drug users can also access other services.

The provincial government will endorse the application with letters of support from the ministries of health and justice, as well as the chief medical officer of health.

Thursday's announcement by the Alberta government came a week after an opinion column about the drug crisis, co-authored by Virani, was published on CBC News.

"It's encouraging. It appears government is listening to experts who are calling for these interventions," Virani said.

But while he describes the latest news as good progress, he is still concerned the province has a long way to go.   

"We've got to go faster. We need to be acting urgently,"

Virani said that while fentanyl is a big problem, so are other opioids. He said opioids other than fentanyl are causing more than 40 per cent of drug-related deaths in Alberta.