New mobile overdose prevention site up and running in Winnipeg will save lives, harm reduction advocates say
Sunshine House RV gets greenlight from feds despite provincial opposition to harm reduction measure
People in Winnipeg who use drugs now have the opportunity to get them tested and use them in the presence of peers who could help save lives in the event of an overdose.
That's the goal of a mobile overdose prevention site run by Sunshine House. The drop-in and resource centre received a federal exemption — which came into effect last Thursday, under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act — to operate its harm reduction RV in Winnipeg's downtown, West End, North End and Point Douglas communities.
Levi Foy, Sunshine House executive director, said in the days after they were notified of the approval, five people died of overdose deaths in the city.
"That's what really forced us to push to get this thing out there because we know that if we had the accurate information out there about the drug supply in the city, people will make informed decisions," they said.
"We're not waiting for people to find a person in an alley or in a parkway or in a bathroom. We can act immediately and that will allow us to save lives."
According to Manitoba's chief medical examiner, 215 people had died of overdose-related deaths as of the end of June. That suggests the province is on track to surpass a record 400 such deaths it tallied last year.
Through the mobile site, people can obtain needles, condoms, pipes and other harm reduction supplies. They can also have their drugs tested on site, or take test strips with them and test on their own.
WATCH | New mobile overdose prevention site up and running in Winnipeg:
Sunshine House received the bulk of its operating funding from Health Canada this summer, and was able to purchase the RV through donations. It's currently raising funds to buy more sophisticated drug-testing equipment for the RV.
Foy said the overdose prevention space differs from a supervised consumption site in that the RV is currently peer-based, not staffed by medical professionals.
The exemption comes months after the City of Vancouver received a federal exemption to decriminalize the personal possession of a small amount of illicit drugs. Manitoba's justice minister and Winnipeg city council have suggested they don't intend on asking the federal government for a similar exemption.
- Manitoba won't ask federal government to decriminalize drugs after B.C. earns exemption: justice minister
"The Manitoba government is committed to ensuring a recovery-oriented system of care that includes the availability of evidenced-based supports across a continuum of care — prevention, early intervention, treatment and recovery — and a continuous pursuit of recovery for individuals with mental illness, substance use and addiction issues," Sarah Guillemard, minister of Mental Health and Community Wellness, said in a statement Monday.
She suggested the province is still reviewing harm reduction strategies to see what best fits.
This summer Guillemard said communities with safe consumption sites haven't seen reductions in overdose deaths or drug use. She repeated that when asked to comment Monday, though she didn't provide evidence to support that assertion.
"Sunshine House publicly announced that it would facilitate drug consumption through an overdose prevention site without following the legal avenues to do so," Guillemard said in a statement. "The provinces are responsible for health service delivery, and the Manitoba government was not consulted."
Addictions medicine specialist Dr. Ginette Poulin said prevention sites provide an important way to connect with people who may not be ready to access treatment services, particularly if those services have an abstinence requirement.
"These are ways that can help …meet the needs where they're at," she said. "This is certainly an important spoke in the wheel in the overall approach to care with addictions."
Paramedic Cory Guest, public education co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, said the WFPS supports harm reduction initiatives that help community groups carry out that work.
Guest said overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites are an "evidenced-based" way to reduce paramedic workload.
"Overdose prevention sites and supervised consumption sites not only provide community members with the ability to use their substances in a supervised site, it also provides them access to primary health care," said Guest.
"They can access care for long-term services and health. It's a sense of community and you have peer-based support there for their friends."
He said peer-based overdose sites function to address urgent needs, like a rise in overdoses tied to a toxic and unregulated drug supply that is "so unpredictable."
WFPS administered the opioid-overdose antidote Naloxone on 1,901 patients last year, more than double 2019 totals, according to WFPS data. Firefighter-paramedics have given it to over 1,600 patients this year as of the end of September.
WATCH | Paramedic urges compassion amid overdose crisis:
The Manitoba Harm Reduction Network and other community groups supported Sunshine House's bid for an exemption.
Shohan Illsley, executive director of the network, said the reason some find supervised consumption services controversial stems from "war on drugs" mentalities from past decades.
"When we're indoctrinated to think about it that way, we don't think about the realities and what's really happening for people on the ground," she said.
"How are we going to make sure that that individual stays safe and doesn't die from a toxic drug supply? Some of the ways we could do that is by having safer consumption services, by providing a safe supply."
With files from Alana Cole and Chantallya Louis