Reflecting on the Lethbridge Supervised Consumption Site

It’s no secret that Lethbridge has a drug problem and it’s agreed upon by most—if not all— that something needs to be done about it. But WHAT should that be? What is the highest achievable good?

Before I explore this query and offer my personal position, it may be helpful to understand the vantage point from which I offer my reflection.

In 2016 I served as a member of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health and we were tasked with studying the opioid crisis in Canada.  The committee heard from a range of stakeholders, including federal and provincial government officials, health care professionals, addiction experts, front-line emergency response workers, First Nations communities, and individuals with lived experience in substance abuse and addiction.

In addition to touring the consumption site in Lethbridge, over the last three years, I have taken the time to visit multiple centres across the country that are dedicated to working with people struggling with addiction. Some ascribe to a harm-reduction approach and others ascribe to a detox and abstinence-based approach.

The doors to the Lethbridge supervised consumption site were opened in spring 2018. During March of that year the site experienced just over 2300 visits. Ten months later, in December 2018 they reported nearly 19,000 visits. Today, the centre averages about 675 visits per day, thus making it the most used facility of its kind in North America and one of the busiest in the world. 

The question is, are these stats good? Has the highest achievable good been attained?

ARCHES, the organization that runs the consumption site, has defined the centre as an “attempt to keep people as safe and healthy as possible in their given practices and lifestyle realities” by providing a supervised environment where clients can access sterile supplies to consume the drug of their choice.

The “highest achievable good” ascribed to by this model, is to help users consume their drug of choice in a manner that is safe enough to keep them alive until tomorrow when they can return for their next high, and the cycle will be repeated over and over again, until—well, actually, no one that I’ve talked to has been able to articulate a vision that moves beyond this cyclical reality.

Some people would say it’s cruel to expect abstinence.  They would say that drugs are simply a normal facet of society—the most that can be expected or hoped for is to “reduce the harm done to those engaging in these behaviours and to the overall community.”

When I inquired about the current approach, one high up official shot back at me that “it’s the best we can do. We can’t hope for more.” This same official has argued that the best way to “deal with these people” is to “put a television in a room somewhere so they have something meaningful to do.”

This approach is extremely degrading.

It has been argued that the supervised consumption site is a “compassionate” response to those who suffer from drug addiction, but in what world is it compassionate to provide a person with sterile equipment and a supervised environment to consume a substance that renders them incapacitated and ultimately leads to their death? In what world is it compassionate to believe so little in a person that the best thing on offer is the fulfillment of today’s high so they can come back tomorrow for their next one?  In what world is it compassionate to classify some people as forever-addicted, and thus incapable of greater things?

Think about it. If a doctor, lawyer, or fire fighter was to confess to having a drug addiction, they would not be allowed to practice in their field until they had received help and remained abstinent for a required period of time. Why is it believed that people in these types of professions are able to recover from a drug addiction and stay abstinent, but those who frequent the supervised consumption site on a regular basis aren’t capable of the same? Is it because those in professional careers have more education? A higher income? Permanent housing? Or is it something else?

Regardless of the answer, the point remains the same—a harm reduction approach creates a class-based society. There are those who are given hope of a better future and those who are condemned to a life of using.

Who determines the allocation of hope? Doesn’t everyone deserve the opportunity to live a life free from addiction?

When did we stop believing that each and every person has inherent value and should be treated with the utmost level of dignity, respect and honour? When did we stop believing that every person has the potential to achieve great things? When did we stop believing that words matter—people in places of authority have the ability to draw greatness out of those they influence or cause harm to the potential that lies within?

Based on the many conversations I have had with users—be it perfect strangers or loved ones— I have observed that those who have a drug addiction have suffered some form of trauma and initially turned to drug use to cope with the pain.

The question is, how should we respond?

If we truly believe in taking a compassionate approach, we must abandon the current methodology that sets the highest achievable good as simply keeping people alive long enough for their next high.

To truly be compassionate, first, we must start from the premise that ALL people have inherent worth and should be treated with the utmost level of respect, honour and dignity. Second, every person has a story and it needs to be told and listened to. Mental health support is essential. Third, everyone deserves to live a life free from drug dependency and be empowered to become their best self.

Detox and recovery must replace supervised consumption, mental health supports need to receive adequate funding, and not-for-profit organizations helping drug users find hope to move through the recovery process should be respected and supported.

My hope is that we become a city where the inherent value of every human being is affirmed; the human heart is healed from the wounds inflicted on it; and human ambition is encouraged.

We become this city when we come alongside those living with an addiction, and value them in the same way we value the wealthy, the educated, and the powerful.