Drug Use on Edmonton Public Transit “Reflects Policy Failures”

    In March, president of the Edmonton Police Association Stg. Michael Elliot shared an image of a person apparently freebasing or smoking an unknown drug on an Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) light rail transit (LRT) train car. In the tweet, the officer said of the student who apparently provided the photo, “She was fearful of the open drug use & wanted to share to the public what is occurring.”

    This sentiment isn’t an isolated one in Edmonton. Recently, news outlets have reported residents feeling frustrated with the state of ETS, citing, among other things, public drug use. Public transit users in Calgary, another of Alberta’s largest cities, are reportedly expressing similar concerns.

    Yet people using drugs on public transit is a logical outcome of government policy failures, say local harm reduction advocates. And in the wake of the recent closure of a well-used supervised consumption site (SCS) in Edmonton, using drugs in these spaces, with other people present, can be seen as a safety precaution.

    “To me, when people use in a setting like the LRT, it tells me they have no safe place to use.”

    “I’ve seen people use on the LRT. I’ve given out harm reduction supplies,” Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, told Filter. “To me, when people use in a setting like the LRT, it tells me they have no safe place to use. Like, most people don’t even have a safe place to live.”

    “Safe spaces to use are few and far between, and have been taken away,” she continued. “The average suburban person doesn’t like it. [But] that’s the reality.”

    The busiest SCS in Edmonton, formerly located downtown at Boyle Street Community Services, closed down last year. This came about because of new provincial regulations for SCS imposed by Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party. This closure, in conjunction with an increasingly toxic drug supply, is pushing people to use in other places. The UCP, which has taken an overwhelmingly abstinence-based approach to its drug policy, did not respond to Filter’s request for comment.

    Moms Stop the Harm has also previously criticized Edmonton for closing down washrooms in LRT stations in an attempt to curb drug use and overdoses. ETS Branch Manager Carrie Hotton-MacDonald told Filter in an email that the city is taking a phased approach to reopening them, which will allow ETS “to test the new measures, monitor and make any adjustments needed before more washrooms are reopened.” She added that, as of May 2, 11 of 18 washrooms in LRT stations had reopened.

    Schulz said she is “thankful people are using where they can be seen.” Using alone, as harm reduction advice routinely points out, increases the risk that a person experiencing an overdose will not be able to receive help. On public transit, “If there’s an incident, if there’s a drug poisoning, they can be found and people can respond.”

    However, she added that it’s still not good that a lack of other options makes people feel they need to use in these spaces. Edmonton does have other SCS. One is located in the Royal Alexandra Hospital, and there’s another at the Boyle McCauley Health Centre. A third is located in the George Spady Society Centre downtown. But all of these have finite space and hours, Schulz said, with limited access after regular hours.

    Beyond increasing access to SCS, Schulz suggested implementing a safe supply program. The provincial government has set up a committee to explore safe supply, but the process has been mired in controversy. She also recommended more housing supports for people, and decriminalizing drugs at the federal level.

    But the city is also amping up police presence on transit.

    Compared to the province, the city government’s response has been better, Schulz said. For one, ETS has created so-called opioid response teams to aid people taking transit. According to Hotton-MacDonald’s emailed statement, safety information is now posted in each transit washroom. This signage shows how to prevent an overdose and access treatment services.

    But the city is also amping up police presence on transit. It’s increasing the number of Community Outreach Transit Teams, which pair a transit officer with an outreach worker. The teams, which are intended to connect people to mental health, addictions and housing services will grow in number from two to seven this summer, according to the email from Hotton-MacDonald. She noted that Edmonton has been “steadily” increasing its complement of “transit peace officers.”

    “We continue to work with our partners to draw on existing resources and supports where possible to respond to the issues we are seeing on transit,” Jenna Pilot, acting director of safe and healthy communities with the City of Edmonton, told Filter in an email.

    “It’s not a security issue in my opinion,” Schulz said. “It’s an issue of people being totally left behind.”



    Photograph by Mack Male via Wikimedia Commons/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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