Outreach groups take to the streets to monitor for drug overdoses in Calgary and Edmonton

Ophelia Cara clicks play on an upbeat indie song before injecting a prescribed opioid into the vein of her arm in a tent at a downtown Calgary park.

She says the music gets her in the right head space.

“Feels so good,” Cara says, before a tourniquet is removed from her arm and she wipes away blood from the crease of her elbow.

An anesthesiologist crouches nearby, ready to react in case Cara has an adverse reaction to the drug.

Minutes earlier, two men share a pipe as tent tarps flap because of blowing snow and strong winds.

The pop-up overdose prevention site is the first of its kind in Calgary, said organizers, who passed out harm reduction supplies, warm drinks and food on Thursday in what felt like –35 C with the wind chill.

Dr. Bonnie Larson, one of the health-care workers who is part of outreach efforts, said there are fears operating an unsanctioned drug-use site could land the groups involved in trouble, but she said it’s worth the risk.

Alberta is on track to record its deadliest year for overdose deaths. Between January and August, more than 1,000 people died.

“In the environment that we’re in right now, with skyrocketing overdose deaths, we need to be doing everything we possibly can to prevent every single individual who is at risk,” said Larson.

A supervised consumption site for medical purposes must be granted an exemption by Health Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to operate.

In Lethbridge, a person who ran a similar site to prevent overdose fatalities was ticketed 17 times for operating without a permit. The city bylaw tickets were dismissed by a provincial court judge.

The Calgary group is relying partially on the Good Samaritan Act, which protects well-intentioned bystanders from legal liability, Larson said.

The Canadian Press has reached out to the City of Calgary and Emergency Medical Services for comment.

Existing services fall short 

“We know that there are way more supports needed than those that are available,” she said. Larson noted that Calgary’s only supervised drug-use site doesn’t allow people to inhale drugs. It’s location, clinical atmosphere and concern from clients who fear potential encounters with police can also be barriers.

There need to be more harm reduction measures, including supervised sites, across Alberta to address the overdose crisis, which is being made worse by an increasingly toxic drug supply, she said.

“The amount of services is not anywhere near what we actually need to catch up to this phenomenon.”

By day’s end Thursday, many people had used drugs under supervision in the tent, she said. There were no overdoses. Larson also spoke to visitors about detox and treatment options and how to administer naloxone to reverse an overdose.

Several social agencies also took to the streets in Edmonton’s core Thursday to raise awareness about Alberta’s drug poisoning crisis.

Volunteers were on standby to respond to potential overdoses, said Boots on Ground, one of the groups involved. There was no overdose prevention tent.

About $2,000 worth of warming items, food and other supplies were distributed. So were nasal and intramuscular naloxone.

Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm, said the event was part of “War on Drugs Armistice Day” that highlights the need for more support and compassion for people who use drugs.

“We need immediate action on the drug poisoning crisis in all communities that is killing four Albertans every day. Almost everyone knows someone who lost a loved one,” said Schulz, who lost her son, Danny, to an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2014.

Schulz is critical of the province’s recovery-focused approach for people who use substances. She said there also needs to be more robust harm reduction supports.

Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government has limited access to supervised consumption sites and to injectable opioid agonist therapy programs that offer medication to prevent opioid withdrawal.

“Many people who die are not ready, able or willing to enter treatment,” said Schulz. “But all deserve to live.”

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