Mobile overdose prevention site filling need
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It was just past noon near the corner of Logan Avenue and Main Street on Saturday, and already a line began to form outside Sunshine House’s mobile overdose prevention site.
“It’s pretty busy today,” Davey Cole said, before greeting a man asking for clean drug use supplies.
“When we started in November, we were seeing around 40 people per day. Now, we’ve doubled that.”
Cole is the program coordinator behind the overdose prevention site, which is the first of its kind in Manitoba and operates primarily from an RV stationed in a parking lot at 613 Main Street. People head there daily from Tuesday to Sunday to access harm reduction supplies like sanitized needles, smoking materials and condoms.
Staff there also offer basic drug testing, and will soon be able to provide people with specific break-downs of what is inside the non-medical street drugs they consume, thanks to the help of a specialized device.
The $65,000 machine is known as a mobile mass spectrometer and should be operational sometime before the end of March, Cole said.
The device, which has not yet been delivered to Sunshine House, will be roughly the size of a laptop and capable of identifying every chemical component present in a sample. It can test both liquids and powders without destroying the sample — something that is crucial to people who use drugs.
“That’s the key. At least people know that they can get (their drugs) back (after testing), and that makes it more accessible,” Cole said.
The amount of toxicity in Canada’s drug supply is reaching unprecedented levels, with suppliers routinely cutting substances with fentanyl and car-fentanyl.
According to a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada released in December, 3,556 people died of opioid toxicity between January and June of 2022 — that number averages out to around 20 deaths per day nationwide.
Opioid deaths in Manitoba were not included in that number because the province did not submit updated data, the report said.
Last month, the province told the Free Press this was due to a lag in reporting, although the Chief Medical Examiner denied that was the case.
Staff at Sunshine House recently released a toxicity alert after a person who believed they were smoking methamphetamine overdosed on opioids. Treating them required nearly 30 times the regular dose of the opioid-reversing drug naloxone, Cole said.
It is not hyperbole to suggest improved drug testing could save lives, said Cole, who is thankful for the public donations that financed the mass spectrometer purchase.
“It’s always been this way. The public steps up where the systems fails. (The fundraising support) proves what we already knew — that it was needed, and the community was willing to fight for it,” Cole said.
“I do this because it needs to be done… I love people who use drugs and I believe their lives are valuable. People deserve to be taken care of, and we need to take care of each other. It’s that simple.”
Sunshine House’s mobile overdose prevention site launched Oct. 28 with $384,000 in support from Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program. To qualify for funding, Sunshine House had to buy the RV itself, which cost roughly $79,000.
Health Canada also granted the project an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. People accessing its services are protected from prosecution while on-site. Those looking for a safe place to inject drugs can do so inside the RV, while an ice-fishing tent outside is reserved for inhalants.
Updated on Saturday, January 21, 2023 7:38 PM CST: Typos fixed