Safe consumption site could offer region more chances to get drug users help, says aid worker

A safe consumption site is set to open in Lethbridge, Alta., early in 2018 and one aid worker says it makes more sense than a safe injection site because it can reach more users and get them help. Should it be considered in Waterloo region?

Every $1 invested in supervised consumption saves $5 in emergency services costs

A drug user prepares heroin bought on the street at a safe injection clinic in Vancouver. Waterloo region has asked for the public's feedback on opening safe injection sites here. In Lethbridge, Alta., a safe consumption site is opening in early 2018 where all drug users can go to inject, inhale, snort or swallow their drugs. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Drug users do more than shoot up, so offering a safe place for those who snort, inhale or take something orally just makes sense, says one Alberta aid worker.

Stacey Bourque is the executive director of ARCHES, a harm reduction agency based in Lethbridge that provides services in southern Alberta. They are opening a safe consumption site in early 2018 in the hopes of reaching more users to get them help.

"People are dying from all modes of consumption, not just through injection, so it's important we offer options to people who use drugs to ensure they have a safe place to go," Bourque said.

There are many drug users who often want help, but don't know where to go to get it, she said.

"The hope is that we're going to be able to move people along the spectrum," Bourque said.

"The consumption site is the entry point into service, and so if they come in to use, at least then we can start having the conversation about, how are things going and, is there anything you'd like change or to get help with," she said.

"Often they say yes and then we just, if those services are in house, it's really easy to connect them."

An injection kit is shown at a supervised injection facility in Vancouver. Waterloo region is looking into whether it should open supervised injection sites and if so, where one or more should go. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Possible locations debated

Waterloo region is asking for the public's feedback on a safe injection site in the region and it's a topic that has particularly struck a chord in Cambridge, where citizen groups have formed to clean up used needles and express concerns about the growing problem.

The region approved a feasibility study in June after hearing a safe injection site was the next step in a comprehensive harm reduction strategy.

A regional council meeting earlier this month was dominated by the topic.

Bruce Lauckner, CEO of the Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), said a safe needle-exchange site is one of the many solutions that "have been demonstrated to have positive effects on public health."

He said a heated point of discussion during a Dec. 5 meeting is where to put the safe-needle exchange.

"It's important to locate these sites as close as possible to individuals in need and sometimes that conflicts of other uses in the area," Lauckner said.

In an interview on The Morning Edition, the region's director of infectious diseases Karen Quigley-Hobbs said that while the region could benefit from an all-consumption site, the province won't fund it yet.

"If the region were to move ahead with what the province is funding, you would do a next step if the landscape were to change," Quigley-Hobbs said.

"Not that we aren't seeing overdoses in other forms of ingestion - we certainly are. That being said, you have to start somewhere."

This is a safe consumption site operated by Fraser Health in Surrey, B.C. (Fraser Health)

Divert money into something 'more effective'

Many of the concerns being heard from residents in Cambridge are similar to what they heard in Lethbridge, Bourque said.

"There are people in every community who don't think that this is the best idea," she said.

Some have said they don't want tax dollars going to a safe consumption site, but Bourque said the numbers show the sites help.

"Every $1 invested in supervised consumption saves $5 in emergency services costs. People often don't consider that their tax dollars already pay for every police call, every ambulance ride, every emergency room visit, every hospitalization already," she said.

"It's better to divert those dollars into something that's going to be more effective and free up those emergency services to tend to other things."

She has also heard the argument that these sites enable drug users and those who use drugs should be allowed to hit rock bottom.

"What is rock bottom?" Bourque said, noting many of the people they see have lost their family, homes, children, jobs, they've overdosed and they still use.

"It's an illusion more than anything that we've convinced ourselves there has to be something that will change people's minds or change people's paths, but there isn't always," she said.

"If death isn't enough, if kids aren't enough, the house isn't enough, the job isn't enough — where exactly is the bottom?"