Canada’s busiest supervised consumption site shuts its doors on International Overdose Awareness Day

The Alberta government is defunding life-saving health services that see an average of 663 visits per day.

ARCHES closes on international overdose awareness day, ARCHES closes on international overdose awareness day

International Overdose Awareness Day began in Australia in 2001 as a bold and public call to combat stigma around drug use, honour the lives that have been lost to overdose, and educate society on the life-saving value of harm reduction. It has grown every year, with a record 874 global events and participation from 39 countries, including Canada, in 2019. These are all encouraging signs that society is waking up to (and communities are mobilizing around) the truth that drug prohibition has failed and a new human rights- and public health-based approach to drug policy is desperately needed. 

(Interactive)

But it’s hard to sense this shift from the actions of the Alberta government, which recently cut funding to Canada’s busiest supervised consumption site, ARCHES, which forced its closure. The doors close today, International Overdose Awareness Day—a time when we should be moving towards progress through compassionate, evidence-based drug policy by embracing more harm reduction, not less. Instead, Alberta, in darkly ironic fashion, is sliding backwards—a regress that erodes the public health and safety of one of Canada’s hardest hit provinces when it comes to overdoses.

Since opening in March of 2018, ARCHES, located in Lethbridge, Alberta, saw an average 663 visits per day. “That’s more daily visits than the busiest sites in Toronto—a city of more than two million, and Vancouver—where Canada’s first supervised consumption site was founded in 2003,” according to the Star Edmonton. The number of lives saved and positive impact to the greater community is immeasurable, so it is both baffling and dangerous to shut the doors on such a vital health service. Research from chief coroners across Canada makes it clear that using drugs alone is extremely risky at a time when the drug market is so toxic. People will likely die without the supervised consumption services ARCHES provides and the supportive environment it affords.

In the first quarter of 2020, there were 127 fatal overdoses related to fentanyl in Alberta, an increase from the previous quarter where there were 105. 85% of the deaths this year occurred in larger urban centres like Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, and yes, Lethbridge1.

In such a climate of death and human suffering, governments should be expanding harm reduction, not scaling it back. Alberta’s provincial government decided to pull funding after a financial audit found suspected financial irregularities around spending and expenses. But this is no reason to punish the marginalized clients who use the facility daily—whose very lives depend on its services and the community of care that has formed around them.

TAKE ACTION: Sign the open letter to restore funding to ARCHES

The Government of Alberta announced a mobile site will replace the services lost with the closure of ARCHES. But advocates warn that this can in no way replace the scale of services and community building a site like ARCHES provided. They’ve done the math, and the numbers are a cause for deep concern.

Across Canada fatal overdoses are climbing, fuelled by the stress and public health strictures of COVID-19. In July, deaths hit a grim milestone in Toronto, claiming more lives than the coronavirus. Saskatchewan recorded more fatal overdoses in the first eight months of this year than all of 2018, “meaning the province may have set a new record for the number of people who have lost their lives to overdoses. The Saskatchewan Coroners Service says there were 40 confirmed and 139 suspected drug toxicity deaths between Jan. 1 and Aug. 6, for a total of 179,” writes Zak Vescera of the Chronicle Herald.

(Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users memorial march; Vancouver; August 15, 2015)

And in British Columbia, two consecutive months of record-breaking overdose deaths have both shattered and enraged the spirits of affected communities. This May there were 171 fatal overdoses; in June, 177; and in July, 175. Across Canada, grief, fatigue, and rage surface in equal measure as frontline communities fighting two public health crises (COVID-19 and overdoses) also battle hostile local governments threatening their ability to save lives.

READ MORE: COVID-19 harm reduction resources

Now more than ever, International Overdose Awareness Day is needed to affirm the value of harm reduction and the policy changes needed to stem the tide of fatal overdoses: decriminalization and a safe supply of drugs. At a federal level, there is slow and incremental progress. It is not nearly good enough, but better than the backwards direction we’re seeing from a provincial government that seems driven by ideology and out of touch with the science and evidence supporting harm reduction.

Though drug policy is a federal matter, provincial governments have the power to alleviate some of the harm created by prohibition—which is fuelling overdose death—by, for example, deprioritizing police enforcement of certain drug laws (de facto decriminalization) and choosing where to spend money. Their funding decisions can also create serious harm for affected communities, as will likely be the case in Lethbridge.


[1] https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/f4b74c38-88cb-41ed-aa6f-32db93c7c391/resource/45e03e51-0fa8-49f8-97aa-06b527f7f42c/download/health-alberta-opioid-response-surveillance-report-2020-q1.pdf

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