U of A research highlights benefits of supervised consumption sites

The findings come amid a spike in overdose deaths around Edmonton. Those that work closely with the community have struggled to keep up, dealing with more than 10 overdoses in one day.

Sites help clients access more treatment, medical care and support services

The inside of a supervised consumption site. The often resemble medical clinics, allowing people to take drugs in a monitored and hygienic place. (CBC News)

At a time when Edmonton is seeing a spike in drug overdoses, the University of Alberta is highlighting research on the benefits of supervised consumption sites.

The study, published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, looked at provincial data on fentanyl-related overdose deaths collected between 2017 and 2020.

It found a "statistically significant association" that showed increased visits to supervised consumption services play a role in a decrease in overdose deaths.

In addition to providing life-saving care when needed, supervised consumption sites distributed a significant amount of naloxone kits — an overdose reversal medication. 

Lead researcher Tyler Marshall said the data also showed more than 10,000 referrals to addictions treatment programs through the centres.

"The SCS is really kind of a front line service where people that are actively using drugs, typically opioids or methamphetamine," Marshall said in an interview Monday.

"Most of them have pretty substantial addictions. It's a really good place for them to get their foot in the door." 

He said those supports can range from further treatment for drug use to additional programs like income support, medical testing and housing.

Tyler Marshall was one of the researchers from the University of Alberta that studied the impact of supervised consumption sites. (CBC News)

The sites are staffed by people with various training and skills including registered nurses and mental health workers.

Marshall said the atmosphere in supervised consumption sites can be more welcoming for those struggling with addiction than an emergency department or other clinical setting. 

A doctoral candidate in the U of A's department of psychiatry, Marshall led the study along with psychiatry professor Dr. Andrew Greenshaw.

Marshall said he hopes the evidence could help to form policy decisions that could better support those with addictions.

"The preconceived notion is that people that use drugs or have an addiction made bad choices," he said.

"Whenever we can move away from that rhetoric, it really allows us to see the individual as a person and that they need support … we kind of take away that label."

Marshall was motivated to do the research by his own volunteer work at supervised consumption sites, and by the overdose death of a friend.

"It was something for me to cope with [that loss] and to learn more about what they were doing," he said

That issue has come to the forefront in the last few weeks. A string of overdose deaths, including three men in a downtown park, have support workers on high alert. 

"It's very concerning what's happening in the community and just the sheer number over the last couple of weeks has become overwhelming," said Tricia Smith, executive director of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre.

Health centre clients tend to stay around the facility during the day whether or not they are able to access the location's supervised consumption site.

"There are times when clients are seeking access to the supervised consumption site and we're full," Smith said. "So they end up using outside. Fortunately they're close so if there's an incident we can still respond.

"[On Sunday morning] our staff were just coming in to open up and there were two overdoses at once but there was only one staff member here."

Provincial data shows 186 people died from opioid related overdoses between January and March. Ninety-five per cent of those were fentanyl-related.

With files from Paige Parsons