Public overdoses spark safe consumption site talk


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Two unresponsive people found in Winnipeg bus shelters and revived by naloxone in recent days have pushed the issue of safe drug consumption sites back into the spotlight.

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Two unresponsive people found in Winnipeg bus shelters and revived by naloxone in recent days have pushed the issue of safe drug consumption sites back into the spotlight.

On Monday, city police said officers found an unresponsive 37-year-old woman at Goulet Street and Tache Avenue on Jan. 9 at about 4:30 a.m. It took two doses of naloxone anti-opioid nasal spray to revive her, before she was taken to hospital in stable condition.

On Jan. 15, at about 11:30 a.m., officers found an unresponsive woman receiving CPR from a Good Samaritan inside a bus shelter at St. Mary’s Road and Fermor Avenue. Officers gave three doses of naloxone before she revived and was taken to hospital, police said.

“It is believed both involved overdosed on a fentanyl-based street drug known as ‘down’… attributed to several overdoses and sudden death events throughout the city,” police said in a statement, adding both women are expected to recover.

Advocates and harm-reduction experts have said safe drug consumption sites (or safe-injection sites) help save lives and assist people addicted to drugs with supports.

More than 400 Manitobans died of overdoses in 2021; that number was expected to climb in 2022, once the tally is made public.

Manitoba is the only province west of the Atlantic region without a supervised consumption site. Both former Tory premier Brian Pallister and successor Heather Stefanson have been opposed to opening such facilities.

Uzoma Asagwara, NDP health critic, said the evidence in favour is clear.

“Safe consumption sites save lives,” Asagwara said Monday.

“They connect people struggling with addictions to the right services and help… Manitoba has a record number of overdose deaths and we have a government that has turned their back on them and their families. It is shocking.”

Main Street Project executive director Jamil Mahmood said such facilities are a needed piece of the puzzle to help people struggling with addictions.

“Safe consumption sites alone will not completely eliminate public substance use, but will provide a safe, supervised place for drugs to be tested, and people to be supported and monitored during their use, preventing overdoses and deaths,” Mahmood said.

“It will also provide direct connections to resources… The combination of a strategy that combines housing, safe consumption sites, mobile outreach services resources would be required in order to reduce the instances of overdoses in public spaces.”

If given the green light, a supervised consumption site “could be rolled out very quickly,” he added.

A spokesman for Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard did not address safe consumption sites, but said making sure people have access to addictions support and treatment services for recovery-oriented care is a priority of the government.

“The Manitoba government allocates more than $2.4 million annually to harm-reduction initiatives, including a distribution and disposal of needles and other supplies,” the spokesman said. “It’s important that harm-reduction measures are only a part of a recovery-oriented system that focuses on helping Manitobans reclaim their lives and families.”

However, Shohan Illsley, executive director of the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network, said the data on supervised consumption sites is clear.

“The evidence…shows that outdoor drug use does decrease in neighbourhoods that they are established in,” Illsley said. “Although people have experienced a drug poisoning (or) overdose at SCS, there have been zero people who have died in SCS from a drug poisoning (or) overdose.

“Further, at SCS there are health-care providers on site who respond to the incident which does not require paramedics and police to respond.”

Marion Willis, executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, said while she isn’t against safe consumption sites, she believes more work needs to be done beforehand.

Willis said researchers should talk to people with addictions to see what they believe would help them.

“We need to have an understanding of the using population,” Willis said. “I believe safe injection sites likely would save lives if they were used… (However, Street Links knows) one of the individuals (in the recent incidents) and she would never use the site… (Such sites) would be one component of a larger harm-reduction program.”

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.


Updated on Monday, January 16, 2023 8:54 PM CST: Fixes typos

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