Despite proof that closing sites costs lives, the UCP go after another harm reduction facility—this time in Red Deer

Despite the release of a recent study showing the closure of Lethbridge’s supervised consumption site cost lives, the UCP is shutting down another similar facility, this time in Red Deer. 

Image from an International Overdose Awareness Day event organized by Moms Stop the Harm held on August 31, 2017 at Centennial Square in Victoria B.C.

The Turning Point Society is the non-profit that ran the overdose prevention site which the UCP are targeting from October 2018 until its closure. According to the organization the overdose prevention site (OPS) has had 168,957 site visits, and medical staff have responded to 5,490 adverse events since opening. 

“We have made significant strides in reducing the number of overdose fatalities in Central Alberta,” said Turning Point Society executive director, Stacey Carmichael in a release. “We were surprised by this decision and are still unsure of its rationale.”

According to Carmichael, the 60 staff employed by Turning Point Society had the figurative rug pulled out from under them, and are struggling to deal with not only their own abrupt unemployment but the precarious situations of clients who will suddenly be without help.

“It is unfortunate that our staff had to find out the way they did, and we will do our best to provide ongoing support and alleviate the impact of this decision in the months to come,” wrote Carmichael, with notably delicate language.

The staff at Turning Point found out about the closure through a conversation between a city councillor and a provincial colleague that was overheard in a restaurant.  

“I also want to extend a formal apology to Turning Point and the service providers in our community who learned about transition after overhearing one of our City Council members talking with a provincial colleague about it in the community. We know this is unacceptable, and for that we apologize,” said Mayor Ken Johnston in a statement about the closure.  

This decision will very likely create real harm in Red Deer. And the reason we know this is because academics have studied the consequences of the UCP shut down of the supervised consumption run by ARCHES in Lethbridge. The UCP government justified their closure of the ARCHES site with a cooked-up controversy around $1.5 million of misappropriated funds that was later proven to be false. ARCHES was then replaced with an AHS-led mobile overdose prevention site. 

The report, titled, “It’s just not the same: Exploring PWUD’ perceptions of and experiences with drug policy and SCS services change in a Canadian City” was released on January 16, 2023.  Marta-Marika Urbanik, a criminology professor at the University of Alberta, was a co-author. 

“The sudden shift from moving harm reduction and overdose prevention from community based non-profits and into the hand of AHS is a direct parallel to what we saw in Lethbridge,” said Urbanik.  

If what happened in Lethbridge happens in Red Deer it will repeat government actions that caused real harm and made people less likely to use harm reduction services. 

“We spoke to 50 marginalized community members in Lethbridge and all reported decreased access to harm reduction services. We found there were several barriers to them using the AHS run OPS, which is essentially a trailer and which is significantly smaller than the facility run by ARCHES,” said Urbanik. 

”All participants reported experiencing the loss of friends and/or family members to drug poisonings, and many participants noted increases in overdoses and deaths in public settings since the SCS closure" reads the report. 

“We found that individuals were scared to use the site, they didn’t feel safe traveling to the site from the downtown core. The original site was downtown, heavily used and had wrap around services, it wasn’t just a supervised consumption site. Then they shut that site down, put up a trailer ten minutes from downtown in a place where people are scared to go and travel to because of harassment from racist passersby,” said Urbanik. 

People who use drugs were less likely to use the AHS-run facility for these reasons and also reported negative impacts from the loss of social space and the loss of an inhalation room. At ARCHES there was space where you could use inhalatory drugs while the AHS trailer does not. 

According to government of Alberta data Indigenous people in Lethbridge are over three times more likely to die from opioid drug poisoning than non-Indigenous people. 

Image from an International Overdose Awareness Day event organized by Moms Stop the Harm held on August 31, 2017 at Centennial Square in Victoria B.C. 

“I think it’s particularly concerning that during a drug poisoning crisis we are removing services and perhaps making them worse,” said Urbanik.  

“In Alberta, the current Government’s adherence to a moralistic, abstinence and treatment approach threatens the future of evidenced-based SCS operations,” reads the report’s conclusion. 

From January to November of 2022, 1443 people died of drug poisoning in Alberta, according to government of Alberta data. UCP claims of funding more than 9,000 recovery beds in Alberta simply aren’t credible, especially when the architect of the “Alberta Model” approach to the drug poisoning crisis, Marshall Smith, tells a friendly journalist that there are only 1300 recovery spaces in Alberta.  And while the UCP announce and re-announce recovery beds that haven’t been built they continue their war of attrition on harm reduction services and on the people who use them.