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U of C professor’s research helps launch first safe consumption site in Alberta

By Kayle Van’tklooster, February 7 2018 —

A University of Calgary researcher’s work helped inform the opening of Alberta’s first supervised consumption site. Cumming School of Medicine professor Katrina Milaney led a research project that provided the background data for Calgary’s recently opened supervised consumption site. Set up at the downtown Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre, the site follows the example set by Insite, a similar clinic that has operated in Vancouver since the early 2000s.

According to Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, safe consumption sites, or harm-reduction sites “allow for people who use drugs to use their drugs safely and securely in the presence of health-care professionals, without the fear of arrest or accidental overdose.”

“It’s an evidence-based, harm-reduction approach to improve health outcomes, to reduce the risk of disease, to improve safety and to reduce overdose, which ultimately reduces death,” Milaney said.

Milaney’s research included surveying and interviewing 370 active drug users to explore how best to help combat the opioid epidemic.

“What we’re looking at right now is offering people a safe place that’s medically supervised,” Milaney explained. “They have access to nurses. They can access Naloxone kits if they wanted to take a kit home and they can engage in other conversations about accessing other services like treatment programs.”

Milaney attributed controversies surrounding supervised consumption sites to misconceptions about their impacts on communities.

“Mostly, people don’t understand what harm reduction is,” she said. “It is evidence-based practice, it saves lives, that it saves taxpayer money because you reduce the risk of serious infectious diseases. It improves public safety. A lot of people don’t understand the positive impacts of harm reduction and they focus mostly on the fact that drug use is illegal.”

Supervised consumption sites are run by Alberta Health Services and are part of a provincial initiative that comes in light of a worsening opioid problem in Alberta. Deaths from overdoses in the province jumped 40 per cent from 201617. On average, 1.8 people died from overdoses each day in Alberta in the past year. Since the first supervised consumption site opened to the public in Calgary in mid-January, it has intervened in 55 overdose cases.

Milaney said supervised consumption sites are a good step but that more needs to be done to combat the opioid problem in Calgary and the rest of Alberta.

“We’re probably several years behind in terms of implementing harm-reduction services,” she said. “This is a really important first step but there are people who won’t access supervised reduction sites who still need support.”

She added that it’s important to reach a wide array of people when talking about harm-reduction efforts.

“How do we reach people in the suburbs who won’t come downtown? How do we reach all age groups? Young people who are using at a party with drugs that may not be safe, they would not necessarily come to a site like this,” Milaney said. “How do we implement services to reach that population? How do we implement services that are safe for women who are particularly vulnerable, for first nations and Indigenous people [as well]?”

“I think we have a lot of room, but we’ve taken a really important first step for Calgary.”

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