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Supervised Consumption Sites Coming to Manitoba

The Manitoba government has announced it plans to open a supervised consumption site in downtown Winnipeg. Premier Wab Kinew called on Bernadette Smith, provincial minister of addictions responsible for mental health, to work with her colleagues in cabinet to move forward with ideas to address a series of addiction and mental health issues. The request was published in a ministerial mandate letter dated October 19. 

Among the listed objectives is a request to create supervised consumption sites in downtown Winnipeg “To save lives and connect Manitobans with health care and social supports.” 

According to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Manitoba had 418 drug-related deaths occur in 2022. From January to June 2023, there have been 216 drug-related deaths. 

Safe consumption sites are a hot-button issue for many Manitobans. The idea of creating spaces for safe consumption of illegal narcotics was continually met with opposition by the previous government, which stated there is little evidence of the success of such systems, even going so far as to say that such systems create greater harm. Many who oppose supervised consumption sites see the programs as just a means of allowing people to consume drugs legally. Arguments against the sites include that once these sites are open, overdose deaths do not decrease. Many point to the mentality of harm reduction as being more harmful and based on little evidence.  

Former Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson was strongly opposed to the institution of supervised consumption sites and referred to other places where these ideas failed. 

“I look at places like California that had these types of sites in place for decades and they’re not working.” 

Upon investigating her claims, many found there is nowhere in California which operates supervised consumption sites, let alone for decades. No supervised consumption sites have ever been operational in California. The current governor of California, Gavin Newsome, vetoed a bill authorizing a pilot project for supervised sites in 2022. 

When Stefanson was challenged on her point, she had no comment. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford stands in strong opposition to safe consumption sites, saying during the campaign for premiership in 2019 that he is “Dead against them.” 

“I ask anyone out there, if your son, daughter or loved one ever had an addiction, would you want them to go in a little area and do more drugs? I’m dead against that.” 

Ford went on to say what he stands for is supporting people and getting them help. What Ford’s statements indicate is a lack of understanding as to what takes place in these supervised sites. While these sites allow individuals to test their drugs for unknown substances and access clean needles, which prevent transmittable disease and infections, individuals are also introduced to clinical assistance for sobriety. 

Having begun in 2003, Vancouver is the epicentre for Canadian -and North American- data as to the effectiveness of supervised consumption sites. These sites offer therapy and counselling to clients and also provide referrals to substance treatment programs.  

Supervised sites act as an introduction to treatment and mental health care for individuals who may not have had any prior exposure to these services. While Doug Ford believes having people gather in a sterilized environment supervised by professionals is a fate no one would want to see their loved ones, he failed to recognize people suffering from substance use disorders are using narcotics in dangerous environments with dirty utensils, often in run-down buildings or the street.  

In Winnipeg, people in bus shelters and sitting on the side of Portage Avenue can be seen using needle drugs in broad daylight. The decision to open supervised consumption sites is not simply whether the government will facilitate drug consumption, as many detractors say. It is whether the government will fund the prevention of bloodborne illnesses and avoidable overdose deaths. 

The recent announcement from the government of Manitoba comes as no surprise. The Manitoba NDP promised to open safe consumption sites during the campaign for the premiership. As of now, Manitoba is the only province west of the Maritimes that does not have permanent supervised consumption sites.  

The statement from Kinew also calls for Minister Smith to work with experts in the field of toxicology to integrate systems for drug testing to prevent drug overdoses and overdose-related deaths. Between 2016 and 2022, 26,690 Canadians died from opioid overdoses. Corresponding with these numbers is a stark increase in fentanyl found in a litany of illicit substances used across the country, primarily in opioids. 100 times more potent than morphine, fentanyl is a high-risk substance. 

When buying illegal substances, users are unaware of what it actually is they are buying. If there is anything harmful or deadly in the substance, the purchaser will be fully unaware until they consume the substance. Of more than 24,000 opioid drugs seized by Canadian law enforcement in 2021, 72 per cent were found to contain fentanyl or fentanyl analogues. Carfentanil is the deadliest of the fentanyl analogues. It is approximately 100 times more toxic than fentanyl and 10,000 times more toxic than morphine. 

Systems of testing drugs are specifically aimed at preventing death from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. There are many other harmful chemicals and substances which can be found in narcotics, many of which are detectable upon being tested.  

Across Canada, 39 supervised consumption sites are operating, a majority of which are in BC. Since 2017, there have been over 4.3 million visits to these sites, with approximately 2,700 visits taking place daily. In that same timeline, there have been 49,000 overdose and drug-related emergencies at these locations with zero reported fatalities. 

Of these 4.3 million visits, there have been approximately 360,000 unique clients since 2017. Of these, over 250,000 referrals were made to drug treatment centres and other social services including mental health support and housing. Many clients using supervised consumption sites have not encountered mental health care until arriving at the site. Details as to what the Manitoba government will do have not been released, nor has a timeline been shared. The Sunshine House and the Main Street Project have been mentioned as groups the government hopes to work with while rolling out the new supervised sites. 

While no concrete supervised consumption sites exist, the Mobile Overdose Prevention Site (MOPS) operates from Wednesday to Sunday between noon and 5:00 pm. Located at 631 Main Street, MOPS operates as a place where individuals can access clean needles and drug testing equipment. Naloxone kits are available at the site, and supervision is available on-site in case of accidental overdose. MOPS first began operating in October 2022 and has an average of 100 visitors per day.  

In October, it was announced that the federal government would be giving an additional $478,748 of funding to a mobile community treatment service which offers assistance to people with substance use disorders in rural and Indigenous communities outside of Winnipeg. This project is meant to provide services to people who otherwise would not have contact with these types of treatment and professionals. The funding received will be in addition to $1,106,284 already received from the federal government. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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