Fraser Health will identify priority sites for supervised drug consumption as part of a broader strategy to contain a surge in illicit drug overdoses, and Maple Ridge could be one.
Fraser Health has to talk with the City of Maple Ridge first.
“This is not something we’ve really ever talked about as a community,” said Mayor Nicole Read.
“It sounds like this is a decision that’s been made by Fraser Health in response to an emerging situation that’s a real crisis. Obviously, we’re going to be working with Fraser Health however we can to deal with the situation in our own community. But what that looks like, I’m not sure yet.”
In April, the B.C. government declared its first-ever public health emergency to deal with the sharply rising cases of opioid drug overdoses across the province.
There were 474 apparent illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. in 2015, a 30-per-cent increase over 2014.
In Fraser Health region, the B.C. Coroners Service recorded 29 fentanyl-related deaths in 2014, 49 in 2015 and 19 in the first three months of 2016.
In May, Health Minister Terry Lake said there were 56 overdose cases reported in April, and the province has seen an average of 60 a month since January.
Fraser Health on Monday said it’s now identifying priority sites for supervised drug consumption.
The announcement followed a frenetic weekend in Surrey where 43 people suffered drug overdoses.
Read said she wants more information about the demographics to show who is suffering the overdoses and where, although she knows overdoses take place on the street and in the temporary homeless shelter on Lougheed Highway.
She also wants the province to provide more youth mental health care to stop the progression towards homelessness and drug addiction and to ensure that the numbers don’t keep climbing.
Dr. Victoria Lee, chief medical health officer, said Monday that Fraser Health is “at the early stages of identifying priority communities and having initial conversations, dialogue and engagement with municipalities.”
No locations have been announced yet.
Lee said sites will be chosen based on where the most benefit is possible, using data on overdoses, as well as fatalities from the B.C. Coroners Service.
B.C. Coroner’s Service stats from last week showed that 10 people in Maple Ridge were killed by fentanyl overdoses in the first six months of this year, almost a fifth of the deaths in the entire region.
Only Surrey, with 22 deaths, had more deaths in the Fraser Health region, which stretches from Burnaby to Hope.
Last year, 11 people each in Maple Ridge and Surrey died from fentanyl overdoses.
Read said nobody from Fraser Health has yet contacted Maple Ridge about possible locations.
“If they’re expecting to do that, there has to be some kind of conversation there, I would think.”
Read doesn’t know enough to say whether she supports it.
With some people opposing homeless shelters, “a safe injection site is another issue that probably will really raise deep concern in the community.”
And people are concerned if such steps are really working.
Maple Ridge is currently trying to find a location for a homeless shelter after public outcry caused B.C. Housing to abandon its proposal to convert the Quality Inn to a supportive housing complex.
Read added that there remain significant issues with mental health.
She said the MLAs need to speak up and get involved.
Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows MLA Doug Bing said he’d support a supervised injection site in Maple Ridge.
“I think it’s a good public health measure to do that and I think it’s a good thing to do.”
Bing also assumes Fraser Health would have to talk to the city.
He said the changes are sparked by the new Liberal government in Ottawa, which doesn’t oppose safe-injection site as much as the Conservatives did.
A safe-injection site could help reduce the number used needles lying around.
“It’s a good thing for people to be in a safe place where people have naloxone and the help they can give them.”
Bing said, if called upon, he’ll speak in favour of a safe-injection site.
“I’m not aware that there’s a huge controversy out here. It’s really a public health measure that speaks for itself. It will save lives. It’ll keep our streets safer – we won’t have all these needles around, or less of them. I think that it’s a positive thing.”
Under the federal Respect For Communities Act passed by the former Conservative government, proposed consumption sites seeking an exemption must be backed by extensive documentation, including support letters from the local municipality and police force.
Some public health officials – notably provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall – have called for the repeal of the federal legislation and expedited approvals, but for now the law stands.
“Fraser Health intends to work very closely with our municipalities to reach out and to ensure that there’s engagement and dialogue in place to successfully apply for the exemption,” Lee said, adding that process has begun in some cases.
“We have engaged with some of the communities, such as Surrey, where we have seen significant increases in the need for that service.”
No overdose victims from over the weekend died, but some were admitted to hospital and Lee said they’ve required up to six times more naloxone than usual to reverse their overdoses – a sign highly potent drugs are involved.
“While people believe that they may be taking crack cocaine, it’s actually fentanyl that’s coming back positive as well as crack cocaine,” she said.
Health Minister Terry Lake supported the push for new supervised sites after the declaration of a public health emergency this spring as the number of fatal overdoses climbed.
An e-mail from the health ministry says supervised injection services such as Insite in Vancouver are proven to save lives, reduce disease spread and connect users to other services, such as detox.
Fentanyl has been traced to illicit drug labs in China. Considered 100 times more potent than heroin and other opioids, its strength makes it easy to smuggle and to reach dangerous levels when mixed with other drugs.
– with files from Black Press