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Supervised Consumption Sites in Winnipeg

Across Canada, there has been an increase in overdose deaths from various substances in recent years. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reported that from January 2020 to June 2021, nearly 10,000 Canadians died by opioid overdose alone. Many of these deaths resulted from drugs laced with substances other than what the user thought they were purchasing, such as carfentanyl. 

This has led many provinces to double down on their efforts regarding addictions and the harms of substance use as lives continue to be lost. Among the more controversial methods are supervised consumption sites. 

Supervised consumption sites (SCS) allow individuals who use drugs to have a safe place to use where they will be provided with clean instruments to prevent the spread of disease or infection. These sites are staffed with community members trained in counselling who can talk with the clients about the dangers of their use and the harm their lifestyle is causing them and their families. Many of these sites provide clients with literature on recovery and act as a means of directing clients to community services that will help them. 

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, the “best practices for substance use outreach programs [are to] gain the trust of individuals who use drugs, go to where these individuals are, conduct outreach in evening and early morning (when risk is greatest), provide multiple means for behaviour change… provide training and supervision for employees, and supports to address burnout, relapse and other health issues.” 

Across Canada, there are presently 38 SCS operating, with an estimated 2,600 visits taking place every day, according to the government of Canada. Between 2017 and 2023, SCS in Canada helped 47,000 overdoses with no reported on-site fatalities. In that same period, an estimated 340,000 Canadians have used SCS, 69 per cent of which were men. Nineteen per cent of SCS clients were 29 years old or younger, while 71 per cent were between 30 and 49 years old.  

Between 2017 and 2023, SCS in Canada has made over 340,000 referrals to community and mental health services. 

Many sites allow individuals to deposit used needles to prevent the reuse or sharing of unsanitary needles. People bring their drugs to the sites to consume in their various ways. The staffing per SCS varies but typically has social workers, community workers and sometimes nurses on hand. 

The most common drugs found across the nation’s 38 SCS were opioids, accounting for 70 per cent of substances consumed on site. This may be partly due to the prevalence of SCS in British Columbia, where the opioid epidemic has taken the strongest hold in Canada, particularly in the greater Vancouver area. Methamphetamine, a drug commonly found throughout Winnipeg, was also notably prevalent at the national level. 

Government Funding 

SCS is not a new idea by any means. The first SCS was opened in Bern, Switzerland, in June of 1986 to combat the rising HIV and overdose pandemics. The first SCS in Canada opened in Vancouver in 2003 for the same reason. As recently as 2021, New York City was allowed the opportunity to fight its raging opioid epidemic with the first SCS in the United States. 

Data pertaining to SCS is not hard to make sense of as the signs of validity are clear. With SCS, local rates of blood-borne illness decrease, as does the rate of overdose deaths. Without SCS, individuals will abuse dirty drugs with unsafe equipment, such as used needles, in unsanitary environments. SCS, at the very least, offers a safe place to consume drugs and exposure to mental health care. Not every individual who uses an SCS will become sober, but many will never have been exposed to accessible help the way it is provided at an SCS. 

At a conference in November of 2022, the government of Manitoba announced it does not intend to fund SCS but will instead invest in recovery-oriented systems. Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard said the province had analyzed data from places using SCS. 

“We’re looking at all the tools in the toolbox, and then we’re going to see which ones are most effective.” 

Guillemard also said the most effective harm reduction strategy is not safe consumption but getting people off drugs altogether. Many advocates spoke out against these remarks, calling them ignorant and generally misinformed about the effectiveness of SCS. 

Provincial Director of the Manitoba Health Coalition Thomas Linner said in a statement that the PC government is “uniquely hostile” to supervised consumption sites, saying the government has “put its own ideology over measures proven to save lives.” 

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

Follow-up research showed that Stefanson’s claim was baseless. Nowhere in the United States have there been supervised consumption sites for longer than a year since her comments, and three months prior to Stefanson’s reference to California, California Governor Gavin Newsome vetoed a bill to authorize a pilot project of SCS. No supervised consumption sites have ever been operational in California. 

When questioned about her pseudo-facts, Stefanson has had no comment. 

Supervised Consumption Site in Winnipeg  

In Winnipeg, located on Main Street, is the Mobile Overdose Prevention Site (MOPS), open Wednesday to Sunday, from 11:45 in the morning until 5:15 p.m. On SaferSites.ca, a website dedicated to bringing supervised consumption sites to Manitoba, MOPS is described as “a place where people can access information on harm reduction, get referrals and can use drugs in a safe, warm space where they are supervised by staff who are trained in overdose response.” 

At MOPS, individuals can access harm reduction supplies such as clean needles and drug testing equipment to ensure their drugs are clean. Narcan/naloxone kits are on hand to fight opioid overdoses. They can also be brought home by individuals to allow them to counter drug overdoses in unsupervised situations. Coffee and water, as well as snacks, are available, as well as staff who can help clients find resource centres that fit their personal needs. Staff members on-site supervise consumption in case of accidental overdose. 

MOPS allows individuals to enter their RV, parked in the lot of 631 Main Street, and use their drugs. In the RV, individuals can inject or snort the drugs they brought, while those who smoke their drugs can use them in a separate area.  

MOPS first started operating in October 2022 after Manitoba recorded over 400 overdose deaths in 2021.  

The refusal of the Manitoba government to support safe consumption sites leaves a program like MOPS with no funding from the province. Their funding came from Health Canada under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act. This funding will end in October of this year, with no renewal planned as of writing. 

MOPS averages over 100 visits per day and has seen over 5,000 people use its services since December 2022. If MOPS does not receive funding, they will not be able to afford to pay their staff and will subsequently shut down their operation. MOPS is the only SCS in Winnipeg as of writing.  

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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