Alberta Government’s New Rules Set SCS Up to Fail, Advocates Say 

    More roadblocks loom for Alberta’s safe consumption sites, as the provincial government sets new regulations for the facilities’ operations. The governing United Conservative Party recently released its Recovery-oriented Overdose Prevention Guide, which outlines a slew of standards that an SCS must now meet to become licensed. Harm reduction advocates in the province—which also recently announced it would be closing Calgary’s SCS—argue that these new rules will make it harder for people who use drugs to access facilities that could potentially save their lives.

    The new requirements include standardized data collection, staff qualifications and training, clinical practice standards and good neighborhood agreements. Others are facility requirements, like washrooms, and creating “documented referral pathways to treatment and recovery services.” Still more include ID for clients and background checks for staff.

    In a June 2 press release, Jason Luan, Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, said, “Alberta’s government is committed to supporting people experiencing addiction while also maintaining the safety and security of communities and neighbourhoods.”

    Bonnie Larson, lead of Calgary Street CCRED Collaborative and a family physician, said she was “not surprised” by the conservative government’s move. Previously, the UCP announced $140 million in mental health funding, with a strong emphasis on abstinence-based recovery programs as their addictions strategy—a move that regional harm reductionists also argued against. It also released a much-criticized report that painted SCS in a negative light. “It’s very much in line with how [the UCP] operates,” Larson told Filter.

    The government of Alberta did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time. Neither did representatives of some of the province’s SCS.

    Dr. Larson noted that existing SCS in Alberta have largely already been following the new rules through their operations. For example, they tend to keep the surrounding areas clean of needles, and work to be good neighbors to the other businesses, people and groups nearby.

    The likely outcome of this regulation would be people avoiding the facilities, opting instead to use drugs alone.

    However, some elements stick out to her. People who go to an SCS for service will now need to supply their government-issue personal health numbers. But some marginalized people, particularly those without homes, may not have these numbers—having either forgotten or lost them (the healthcare cards provided are notoriously flimsy, being made only of paper, though the government is working to address this), or never having had them at all.

    To address this, the government’s new guide recommends that the client and provider reach out to the government to either gain or regain access. The document also links to another government website listing the kinds of documents that can aid a person in gaining healthcare coverage in the province—these include pay stubs, social insurance number, bank statements, baptism certificate, etc.

    In any case, the second that a provider asks for a person’s healthcare number, or asks to help them gain access to it is “the moment the client leaves the service,” Larson said.

    Many people who access SCS don’t even want to use their real names, she said. Some of them might not want to have it on their records that they went to a SCS for privacy reasons, informed by fear of stigmatization and law enforcement harassment. The likely outcome of this regulation would be people avoiding the facilities, opting instead to use drugs alone, thus increasing their risk of overdose.

    Larson believes that the government of Alberta is not listening to experts or the lived experience of people who use drugs. Rather, their decisions are “entirely driven by their own ideology.”

    Hasham Kamran, a Calgary-based board member of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, pointed out the fact that people working at SCS will, under the new regime, need to have background checks performed as another issue.

    “Meeting people where they’re at—that’s the opposite of what they’re doing.”

    This could prevent peer workers and people with lived experience from working in SCS, if they have had previous criminal charges laid against them. “They have the lived experience, and they can help people,” Kamran told Filter, adding that some peer support workers would simply refuse to undergo such checks.

    Kamran said that the Government of Alberta’s track record for caring about people who use drugs is “quite obvious—for lack of a better term, they don’t care.”

    He cited, for example, the closures of ARCHES in Lethbridge and Boyle Street Community Services’ SCS in Edmonton. The government announced that it would be opening two new SCSs in Calgary, after closing down the one located inside the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre, but so far there’s no word on when or where they will appear, he said. Kamran suspects that these new locations will not be located centrally, however. And if they’re located too far away, “No one’s going to travel out of their way to use [an SCS].”  

    It’s likely the new regulations will create more barriers for people who use drugs at a time when they need fewer of them, Kamran concluded. “Meeting people where they’re at—that’s the opposite of what they’re doing.”

    “They’re setting these services up to fail. Everybody’s going to walk away,” Larson said. “Then [the government] will turn around and say ‘We don’t need supervised consumption services because no one uses them.’”


    Photograph of SCS in Alberta in 2018 by Government of Alberta via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Doug is a writer, editor and journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark Magazine, New Scientist and Hakai, among others. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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