Fraser Health is working to identify priority sites for supervised drug consumption as part of a broader strategy to contain a surge in illicit drug overdoses.
At least one of those sites should be in Abbotsford, according to local advocates.
Surrey is certain to be one of the proposed locations, but health authority officials aren’t yet saying if they will also propose sites in other drug-troubled downtowns such as Langley City, Maple Ridge and Abbotsford.
“We’re at early stages of identifying priority communities and having initial conversations, dialogue and engagement with municipalities,” said Dr. Victoria Lee, Fraser’s chief medical health officer.
Health authority officials made the announcement after a sudden surge in overdoses in the north Surrey area, with 43 recorded over the past weekend.
Lee said sites will be chosen based on where the most benefit is possible, using data on overdoses, as well as fatalities from the B.C. Coroners Service.
Desperate need for site in Abbotsford
Pastor Jesse Wegenast, who coordinates 5 and 2 Ministries’ harm-reduction services, said there is a desperate need for such a facility in Abbotsford.
Wegenast said he is aware of strong opposition to safe drug-consumption sites in the community, so named because they serve not only injection drug users.
He said most people picture a standalone facility like Insite in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside but he would rather see such services embedded within existing Fraser Health facilities.
There are a lot of misconceptions about supervised drug-consumptions sites and it is important to try to change minds about them, said Wegenast.
“A lot of people are under the false impression that people go there to get free drugs and stuff, which is the furthest thing from the case,” he said. “We need to have everybody buying in and in order to have public buy-in, everybody needs to know exactly what is being proposed.”
Insite is one of only two supervised injection sites in British Columbia so far.
Vancouver Coastal Health Authority has indicated it will seek up to five more, while other health authorities are expected to pursue them in cities such as Victoria, Kelowna and Kamloops.
Federal law restricts facilities
Under the federal Respect For Communities Act passed by the former Conservative government, proposed consumption sites seeking an exemption must be backed by extensive documentation, including support letters from the local municipality and police force.
Some public health officials – notably provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall – have called for the repeal of the federal legislation, but for now the law stands.
Even more modest harm-reduction strategies have at times been controversial among Fraser Valley politicians.
Supporters say supervised-use sites greatly reduce fatal overdoses and the spread of infectious disease among users, while also providing an avenue to connect those at risk to services that could help transform their lives.
Opponents believe they have the effect of entrenching drug use in communities, and they favour a less tolerant approach.
Health Minister Terry Lake supported the push for new supervised sites after the declaration of a public health emergency this spring as the number of fatal overdoses climbed.
Fraser Health says its recently approved overdose prevention and response strategy goes far beyond supervised sites.
“There is no single solution to the public health emergency we are facing,” Lee said. “It is a complex concern that requires a multi-faceted approach to prevent overdoses, encourage safe consumption, and provide treatment options.”
Overdose crisis can’t be ignored
Wegenast said the problem can’t be ignored and that doing so “is the number one way to see things get worse and worse.”
He likened the current debate for and against supervised drug-consumption sites to the one over contraception in years past.
“When the roll-out of contraceptives was a big deal, there was an evidence-based side and then there was a moralistic side, and I think that put a lot more people at risk. So we need to get through that and that’s going to take a lot of education,” said Wegenast.
Mayor Henry Braun voted to repeal a ban on harm-reduction services in Abbotsford when he was a councillor in 2014. He said he has not been approached by Fraser Health on the issue.
The region last fall began increasing the number of take-home naloxone kits provided to overdose patients who end up in emergency departments. All 12 emergency departments are now registered to dispense the antidote kits.
Officials say 857 take-home naloxone kits were dispensed via emergency department staff, public health units or community partners between January and May, a 10-fold increase from 2015.
In Abbotsford, these kits are distributed by the Warm Zone.
Lee said Fraser will also continue region-wide efforts to equip at-risk populations and their friends and family with naloxone, including the use of police and fire departments, BC Housing and other organizations.
Also promised are public-awareness campaigns targeting different types of drug users and better supports to improve access to opioid substitution such as suboxone.
There have been 127 overdose deaths in the Fraser Health region in the first six months of this year.
– With file from Jeff Nagel, Black Press