Lethbridge supervised consumption site opens doors for an inside look

By Ashley Wiebe
August 29, 2018 - 5:13pm Updated: August 30, 2018 - 10:42am

LETHBRIDGE, AB — As the opioid crisis continues to take the lives of people all over the country, the province of Alberta is focusing its efforts on safe consumption sites.

The Medicine Hat Coalition on Supervised Consumption has been working to find a suitable space here in either the downtown or North Railway neighbourhoods.

To learn more about what a centre could be look like in Medicine Hat, CHAT News went to check out of the country's busiest consumption sites, located in Lethbridge.

You can see it from the highway.

The brick building on 1st Avenue South use to be a nightclub and is just a few blocks from Park Place Mall.

The community group, ARCHES, took over the space and opened the supervised consumption site at the end of February.

Every month, they’re seeing more and more people walk through their doors.

The building houses several different programs, but one of the main supports is supervised consumption.

The managing director, Jill Manning, was happy to give us a tour, while the supervised consumption services program manager, Lindsay Stella, explained how the site runs.

The reception area was quiet on Tuesday afternoon. One person was sitting quietly in a chair near the door, while a woman looked out the window.

Manning explained that many people who come to the facility for the first time aren’t sure what to expect.

“To get somebody through the door that first time that someone visits, we often see a real reluctance and a hesitation and a distrust,” she said.

Staff are warm and friendly, eager to help anyone who opens the door.

There is no judgment here.

A lot of the clients walk in from off the street and staff acknowledge most are battling addictions.

“It’s very easy to cast these people aside and generally that’s how they’ve been dealt with in our societies, unfortunately,” Manning added.

Clients are asked a few key questions, including their name or alias, and what drugs they'll be using and how.

They're carefully checked in as staff hand out supplies, like clean needles and tin foil.

They’re then buzzed through a door off to the right, known as the drug consumption room.

“Unfortunately, when we first opened, we had wait times of 60 to 90 minutes in order for people to even access services,” Manning said.

Since opening in February, nearly 48,000 people have visited the site.

Earlier this summer, the province announced it was providing money to expand.

Four additional booths have been set up in what was once a nursing station. They’re a temporary solution while construction is done in the consumption room. Soon there will soon be 13 permanent stations.

“Generally people using the drug consumption room don’t have a safe, hygienic place to use and so that is what we’re providing them,” Stella said.

Everyone is timed and has 45 minutes to either inject, ingest or inter-nasally use their substances.

Three registered nurses are on shifts, always keeping a watchful eye on the booths and who’s at them.

“It’s all about safety and that’s first and foremost,” Stella said. “We need to make sure everyone's safe and sometimes that means that the RN kind of has to stay nearby cause the risk of overdose is so high.”

After using, clients must head to an area referred to as the chill room.

This is where an overdose is most likely to happen.

If someone does overdoes, an alarm sounds throughout the building.

“All staff respond and everyone is cross trained in standard first aid and healthcare provider CPR, so it truly is a group response,” she added.

Staff do their best to control situations. One example is having blue lights in the bathrooms.

“It makes it difficult to find a vein,” Stella said. “We really don’t want people using in our washrooms.”

Still, a yellow sharps disposal container is kept beside the sink and staff wait patiently outside in case something does happen.

“Harm reduction is about accepting that these things exist in our society and that while they may not be ideal, that we only have a limited amount of control once an addiction has developed,” Manning said.

Manning adds it’s important that everyone gets the supports they deserve, until they’re ready to take that next step towards recovery.

“I think that even though that can be uncomfortable for people, the sooner that we can kind of accept that and start to address that, the better we’ll be because it’s unfortunately not going away,” she said.

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