Manitoba announces next steps for first permanent drug consumption site, minister says


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A mobile overdose prevention site in Winnipeg has seen tens of thousands of visits from people seeking to access services or use drugs in a safe environment.HO/The Canadian Press

According to Addictions and Homelessness Minister Bernadette Smith, Manitoba will soon announce next steps toward establishing the province's first permanent supervised consumption site in downtown Winnipeg.

Ms. Smith said the government is working on a community-led approach, working with frontline organizations, experts from the provincial agency Shared Health and drug users and their families. She said more details would be released in the coming weeks.

They all “have been telling us that this has been necessary for a long, long time,” Ms. Smith said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

The minister would not confirm whether she had accepted a proposal from Sunshine House, which runs a mobile overdose prevention website, for the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Center to run the permanent facility.

Preliminary data from Manitoba's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner showed there were 445 drug-related deaths in the province in 2023 and 467 in 2022.

The province plans to spend $2.5 million on a monitored consumption site, Premier Wab Kinew said during a news conference after releasing his 2024 budget earlier this month. In addition, he said, it will hire 20 mental health professionals to work with police, open 400 new detox beds and spend $500,000 on 24-hour rehab centers in Brandon and Thompson.

“The addiction crisis is taking lives of the people we care about in the province of Manitoba, and with so much at stake, we must get it right,” he said at the time.

Ms. Smith said one of the first steps the province took was to order two FTIR spectrometers. These tools will support urban and rural organizations focused on harm reduction to test substances for toxic contaminants.

“We are emerging from a government – ​​for seven and a half years – that did not take a harm reduction approach,” Ms Smith said. “And we're seeing the result of that – too many deaths in Manitoba, and one death is way too many.”

The former Progressive Conservative government has criticized the supervised consumption site proposal in the past. Opposition Leader Wayne Ewasko did not respond to The Globe's request for comment.

On Thursday, Sunshine House released a 91-page report prepared by independent firm LAHRK Consulting that reviews the first year of its mobile overdose prevention website.

From October 2022 to October 2023, there were 26,154 visits to the mobile site, 7,086 of which came from people who were there to use drugs, the report said.

Kerniel Aasland, one of the report's authors, says the cell service reversed 20 overdoses and there were no deaths locally.

“It is a safe place where people can access services and support, connect with the community and sometimes take drugs, in a way that is safe and keeps them alive for tomorrow are still there,” said Mr. Aasland.

He says the mobile overdose prevention site has exceeded expectations.

LAHRK Consulting collected data through interviews, focus groups and surveys.

Preventing overdoses reduces emergency calls and hospital visits, reducing costs to the health system and the “spillover effect” to other organizations focused on harm reduction, Mr. Aasland said.

The report also showed that fewer needles and substances were left on the floor near the mobile unit and more materials were safely disposed of.

Mr Aasland says people who don't have a safe space to use drugs are more likely to rush drugs, use alone or use them in public spaces.

Davey Francis Cole, Sunshine House's mobile overdose prevention site coordinator, says the organization has the resources, such as an FTIR spectrometer, that has positively changed the lives of people who use drugs because it gives them autonomy have to decide what you want to use.

“It really gives people power back in their lives and that has been so fruitful and exciting and I feel so honored to be a part of it,” said Mx. Cole said.

Mx. Cole oversees the site along with other employees and people they have hired in the community who have used or are currently using drugs.

The site operates out of an RV that travels through downtown Winnipeg five days a week.

According to Levi Foy, managing director of Sunshine House, there were 782 visits to the site in November 2022, with a drastic increase to 3,601 visits in November last year.

“We cannot do this in the way we are doing it now because it is a highly imperfect model and we are doing it because we have to, but it is not sustainable,” he said.

From June 2022 to October 2023, Health Canada provided Sunshine House $385,337 to operate the website using funding from the Substance Abuse and Addictions Program.

A spokesperson for Health Canada said in an email to The Globe that the project funding was “time-limited and not intended to ensure long-term sustainability.”