Two safe injection sites are now open in Edmonton as part of a response to Alberta’s opioid crisis. The Boyle Street Community Services location opened in March, and the first hospital-based site in North America opened at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in April.
In 2016, 343 Albertans died from fentanyl-related overdoses, and last year, there were nearly 600 deaths.
The safe injection sites are part of a harm reduction strategy – recognizing that abstinence may not be realistic.
“There was a little bit of apprehension in some communities, [before the sites opened, but overall]…there’s been a real decline in needle debris, in seeing people using drugs on the streets, but also a decline in seeing overdoses happening outside,” said Brandy Payne, Alberta’s Associate Minister of Health and the Lead Minister on substance use and the opioid crisis.
“I think that one of the real benefits of having supervised consumption [services] is that it recognizes that addiction is a health concern. That it requires a medical response, and it allows for medical services in the same way as many other health conditions and concerns,” said Payne.
In order to access the site, a user must be at least 16-years-old, sign a consent form, go over their drug and medical history, and talk about the drug they are bringing in. From there, they are escorted to a semi-private booth with clean supplies like needles, alcohol swabs, cookers, and sterile water. Medical professionals are also available to provide coaching on how to more-safely inject. Finally, a nurse watches while they inject, before they are given time in a recovery room.
Safe injection sites are not the only response to the opioid crisis in Alberta.
“There’s also social workers, and other supports available. If someone needs support in finding housing, seeking treatment, additional medical care, (such as wound care), those supports are available on site,” said Payne.
“Also in the harm reduction model is spreading access to naloxone kits. Naloxone can temporarily reverse the effects of an overdose. We have a number of community partners that offer the kits free of charge to any Albertan. You can also go to your community pharmacy and pick-up a kit,” explained Payne. NAIT currently offers these kits on campus.
These kits are not only important for drug-users themselves, but to “help support a friend or a loved one,” said Payne.
“If you know someone who’s using drugs, don’t let them use alone, and make sure you have access to a naloxone kit, and know the signs of an overdose,” urged Payne.
Lethbridge, Calgary, and Edmonton are currently the only communities with permanent safe injection sites in Alberta. Other Alberta communities are considering similar sites including: Red Deer, Fort McMurray, Medicine Hat, Grande Prairie, and Edson.
– Arielle Trischuk, Assistant Editor