Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. eyeing safe drug sites as pandemic spawns 'lethal combination' of risks

Front-line workers are taking the first step to creating secure sites where people can use heroin, cocaine and other substances under supervision.

Sites allow use of heroin, cocaine under medical supervision

Drug overdose prevention sites exist across Canada. Harm reduction workers are pushing to bring them to Newfoundland and Labrador as the COVID-19 pandemic increases risks to users. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A team of harm reduction workers are taking the first step toward opening special sites where people can use unregulated, and sometimes lethal, drugs under supervision.

Eastern Health and the Aids Committee of N.L. are spearheading the task of figuring out who would use the overdose prevention sites and where to put them.

While harm reduction workers in Newfoundland and Labrador have been calling for such facilities for years, the push has new momentum in recent weeks as measures to combat the coronavirus throttle the usual flow of illicit drugs into the province.

That disturbance ramps up the risks of using drugs recreationally, explained Alexe Morgan, a social worker with ACNL who's leading the way for these sites to open here.

"We're seeing a lethal combination of a number of things happening right now," Morgan said. "There aren't many drugs coming in, and the ones that are coming in are being laced."

From her work on the front lines, Morgan said it's safe to assume dealers faced with an illicit drug shortage are cutting other substances into their batches in order to stretch them out — or running out of product entirely, causing users to turn to other substances they may not have experience with.

Others may be using an influx of government money to source alternative drugs or take a higher dose. Conversely, some might be relying on cheaper options if they're struggling financially.

"Even in a pandemic, drug use doesn't stop," she said. "Addiction doesn't end because the world stops."

The sites, like this one in Quebec, sometimes have multiple stations for injecting and consuming drugs. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Those disruptions add up to a potentially deadly confluence, Morgan said, pointing to an overdose death in Nain last month and a suspected overdose on the Burin Peninsula in early May that's under RCMP investigation.

An overdose prevention site, which operates under a legal exemption granted by Health Canada, could combat accidental poisoning by allowing clients to inject or consume illicit drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, while medical staff wait nearby to respond to an overdose. 

Building relationships

Drug policy experts across the country have long touted these sites as a life-saving service — one direly needed in an age of closed borders and unreliable supply, Morgan said. 

Morgan and Jane Henderson, the province's harm reduction consultant with Eastern Health, are in the process of devising a needs assessment consisting of a survey for frontline workers and people who use drugs themselves.

The team is still working out parameters, including who and how many people will be surveyed and a timeline, Morgan said. Because of Newfoundland and Labrador's geography, they're consulting with an overdose prevention site in Nova Scotia, which has a similar population distribution.

As Canada's overdose crisis emerged as a serious public health emergency, supervised consumption sites began popping up.

Some have elicited pushback from the surrounding community, with neighbours citing myriad concerns, including improperly discarded needles and fears the facilities encourage addiction rather than treat it.

Morgan is hoping the sites can offer treatment and other services — a one-stop shop.

"A beautiful thing about harm reduction is it actually connects people to services," Henderson said. "You start to build those relationships."

Health Minister John Haggie told CBC News in 2018 that he hadn't looked at overdose prevention sites as a harm reduction measure, citing Newfoundland and Labrador's small and scattered population. 

Morgan expects to present the data to government after the survey.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's. She previously worked at CBC Toronto and CBC Vancouver.

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