Here’s an easy-to-swallow statement: I think it’s sad when people die.
I’m going to assume most people generally agree with me there.
But let’s digress for a moment. (Although I’m pretty sure you’ll see where I’m headed.)
A few days ago, I completed a government survey on supervised drug consumption sites. As I wrote in the survey, I lived near the Calgary-based consumption site (located across the street from where this photo was taken); I previously owned a condo in the area for nine years. For most of that time, the consumption site didn’t exist – so I feel like I have a decent “before/after” picture in my head. I don’t doubt that people have experienced issues in the neighbourhood since the site was created, but it’s only fair to note the area also had issues before.
The online survey asked about people on the street, litter, debris, theft, and so on. I responded that I had seen and experienced all those things both before and after the consumption site’s existence. The major difference for me after the site opened was knowing there were professionals nearby who might be able to help, and a greater police presence.
Of course, that’s just my experience. As I said, I don’t doubt there are others with different experiences. Those folks deserve to have their concerns heard, and they deserve for effort to be put toward addressing those concerns. I’m not sure, however, that the need to have concerns addressed outweighs the need to have fewer Albertans die. Just because I don’t (usually) know the people dying of overdoses doesn’t mean I think they deserve to die.
Because here’s the thing: supervised consumption sites can prevent people from dying. According to a recent news article, the site I lived near has already responded to 134 overdoses in 2019. And even back in 2012 when this other article was published, research showed that supervised consumption sites had averted thousands of deaths in several countries.
Our own government website in Alberta says 733 people died of opioid overdoses in 2017, and notes supervised consumption services can reduce not only the number of deaths, but also the transmission of diseases and infection, public substance use, and discarded needles.
Addictions are complex and not easily fixed. They cause damage – physical, emotional, financial, etc – and often make it difficult to empathize with someone who has an addiction (someone, it might be said, who is both suffering and causing suffering). So, I understand it’s easier to complain, get angry, or demand simple fixes.
But I also understand a few other things:
I understand that people who work with high-risk populations can suffer vicarious trauma from trying to save lives. I’m thinking about staff at shelters, firefighters and police officers who arrive first at an overdose scene, etc. If the people these folks are trying to resuscitate were instead visiting a supervised consumption site, the resuscitation might be less of an emergency, and it could be provided by someone who has appropriate training and support.
Even better, the professionals at supervised consumption sites know how to talk with people using drugs and, where possible, refer them to treatment and other services when a person is ready and able to make that kind of change.
I also understand that not everyone using drugs is part of a so-called “high-risk” population. According to another report using U.S. data, 1 in 8 adults have now had a family member or close friend die from opioids. Realizing that overdoses can affect all kinds of people and families, a woman in Calgary is trying to change the face of addiction. Her partner died of an overdose and it’s been a couple of years since I first saw her in the news, but I remembered enough of her situation to dig up this link.
I also understand there are economic considerations. A 2012 publication comments, “when the Office of the Auditor General of Canada last reviewed the country’s drug strategy, in 2001, it estimated that of the $454 million spent annually on efforts to control illicit drugs, $426 million (93.8%) was devoted to law enforcement.” I’m not suggesting we do away with the law enforcement, but imagine how much money we might save in the long run if funding could also be devoted to lasting treatment and prevention?
You might be reading this and calling me political/partisan names. So, not for the first time, I’ll remind readers that not everything has to be about dividing ourselves into “for” and “against” camps. Besides: I’m deliberately not talking politics.
I’m talking about the same sentence I started with: I think it’s sad when people die. Fortunately, there’s evidence to show fewer people may die with use of supervised consumption sites. We can demand those sites be carefully considered, well-run, and adequately secured…But we should also not be afraid to demand that fewer people die.
*Side note: if you want to voice your opinions on this topic, there’s still 24 hours to fill out the government survey (click here). Longer term, you may also considering supporting the “DOAP team”, which does amazing work with some of the people affected by this issue.