Four academics write to province in support of Medicine Hat's supervised consumption site

By Jessie Weisner
May 17, 2019 - 4:29pm Updated: May 17, 2019 - 7:34pm


MEDICINE HAT, AB -- The debate continues around Medicine Hats supervised consumption site, but now, a different set of voices are weighing in. 

Four academics from across Western Canada have written a letter in support of Medicine Hat’s site.

It was sent Thursday evening.

Doctor Rebecca Haines-Saah, assistant professor for the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary says they believe that had to speak up about the facts.

“I don’t see this letter as being a negative or an attack,” says Dr. Haines-Saah. “It’s really saying ‘here’s what the evidence says and we’d like to have some conversations about this, and we’d like to be resource to you.’”

Three doctors and one PHD student from the Universities of Alberta, Calgary and British Columbia wrote it as a response to Drew Barnes’ letter to Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

Barnes’ asked the health minister to re-open consultations for the site, and use taxpayer dollars more effectively by providing resources like additional counselling and detox services.

Haines-Saah believes the letter may be politically motivated.

“Personally my sense is that an MLA wouldn’t feel emboldened to send a letter to a new minister of health unless there was some sense that this action would have some behind the scenes endorsement from their party,” she said.

Their letter cites research that shows specific benefits from supervised consumption sites.

“Research supports their role in providing connections to counselling and social supports and increased referrals for addiction treatment and a reduction in HIV and Hepatitis C transmission,” reads the letter. “By providing health education and sterile equipment to people who use drugs, health care provides at these sites also help mitigate the risk of life-threatening infections and illnesses that can accompany drug use and lead to costly hospitalizations. Evidence also points to reduced levels of public injecting of drugs as ell as lower levels of drug paraphernalia (e.g. used needles) being discarded in public places when supervised consumption services are in placed.”

“There’s very clear evidence to support some of the benefits of supervised consumption sites,” says Heather Morris, registered nurse and PHD student in the school of public health at the University of Alberta.

It also cites statistics about opioid addiction.

“As you are aware, 2 Albertans die every day from apparent accidental opioid poisoning, with fentanyl being involved in approximately 90% of these deaths,” reads the letter. “Between October and December of 2018, there were over 86,000 visits to supervised consumption sites in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge and it was at these sites that 983 overdoses were attended to by the healthcare professionals on hand to support such medical emergencies.”

Haines-Saah says the situation in Medicine Hat needs to be addressed.

“For a small community, Medicine Hat has the sixth highest rate of overdose deaths and that’s not insignificant,” she says.

Morris says while Barnes’ stance on providing detox services and additional counselling is positive, both those services and a supervised consumption site have a place in treating addiction.

“I don’t think we need to necessarily take away from a supervised consumption site either,” says Morris. “I think we need to be able to financially support and give additional resources towards both options.”

One common discussion around Medicine Hat’s potential site is about community consultation. Many believe the consultation process was not robust enough.

Haines-Saah says just because residents disagree with the site doesn’t mean it shouldn’t go forward.

“This is a different process for an issue that is new and that really hits at the heart of some peoples values and so we do need to have those conversations but it doesn’t mean at the end of the day that we say ‘well, people are having a hard time with this so we’re not going to save a life’,” she says.

Adding there typically isn’t consultation when there’s a community health crisis.

“We don’t have community consultations for other emergency health responses,” she says. “If we need to respond to an influenza pandemic, if we need to scale up immunization and responses to other outbreaks in the community, community doesn’t get to consult and say ‘no we’re not going to do that’.

The academics join multiple Medicine Hat residents who have sent letters to Tyler Shandro supporting the site.

The full letter can be read below: 

UPDATE: Power outage in city's southwest resolved