New mobile overdose prevention site set up in Winnipeg will save lives, say harm reduction advocates

People in Winnipeg who use drugs now have the opportunity to get tested and use them in the presence of peers who could help save lives in the event of an overdose.

That’s the goal of a mobile overdose prevention site run by Sunshine House. The drop-in and resource center received a federal exemption — which took effect last Thursday, under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act — to operate its harm reduction RV in downtown communities in Winnipeg, West End, North End and Point Douglas.

Levi Foy, executive director of Sunshine House, said that within days of being notified of the approval, five people died from overdoses in the city.

“That’s what really forced us to push to get this stuff out there because we know if we had accurate information about the drug supply in the city people would make informed decisions,” they said. .

“We don’t wait for people to find a person in an alley or on a walk or in a bathroom. We can act immediately and that will save lives.”

According to Manitoba’s Chief Medical Examiner, 215 people had died of drug overdoses by the end of June. This suggests that the province is on the right track to surpass a record 400 such deaths recorded last year.

Through the mobile site, people can get needles, condoms, pipes and other harm reduction supplies. They can also have their medications tested on the spot or take test strips with them and test on their own.

WATCH | New mobile overdose prevention site operational in Winnipeg:

New mobile overdose prevention site operational in Winnipeg

People who use drugs now have the opportunity to get tested and use them in the presence of peers who could help save lives in the event of an overdose.

Sunshine House received most of its operating funding from Health Canada this summer and was able to purchase the RV through donations. He is currently fundraising to purchase more sophisticated drug testing equipment for the RV.

Foy said the overdose prevention space differs from a supervised consumption site in that the RV is currently peer-based and not comprised of medical professionals.

Sunshine House received a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to operate an RV-based overdose prevention site in Winnipeg where people can use and test drugs in the presence of peers. (Alana Cole/CBC)

The exemption comes months after the City of Vancouver received a federal exemption to decriminalize personal information possession of a small amount of illegal drugs. Manitoba’s Minister of Justice and Winnipeg City Council hinted that they had no intention of asking the federal government for a similar exemption.

“The Manitoba government is committed to a recovery-oriented system of care that includes the availability of evidence-based supports across a continuum of care — prevention, early intervention, treatment and recovery — and an ongoing pursuit of recovery for people with mental illness. , substance abuse and dependency issues,” Sarah Guillemard, Minister of Mental Health and Community Wellbeing, said in a statement on Monday.

She suggested the province is still looking at harm reduction strategies to see what works best.

This summer, Guillemard said communities with safe consumption sites did not see a reduction in overdose deaths or drug use. She repeated that when asked to comment on Monday, although she did not provide evidence to back up the claim.

“Sunshine House has publicly announced that it will facilitate drug use through an overdose prevention site without following legal channels to do so,” Guillemard said in a statement. “The provinces are responsible for the delivery of health services, and the Manitoba government was not consulted.”

People who use drugs can do so inside the RV, where they also have access to clean needles, tubing, condoms, and other harm reduction supplies. (Jeremie Bergeron/Radio-Canada)

Addiction medicine specialist Dr Ginette Poulin said prevention sites are an important way to connect with people who may not be ready to access treatment services, particularly if those services have an abstinence requirement.

“These are ways that can help…meet needs where they are,” she said. “This is certainly an important focus in the comprehensive approach to drug addiction care.”

Paramedic Cory Guest, public education coordinator with the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, said WFPS supports harm reduction initiatives that help community groups do this work.

Guest said overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites are an “evidence-based” way to reduce the workload of paramedics.

“Overdose prevention sites and supervised consumption sites not only provide community members with the opportunity to use their substances at a supervised site, but they also give them access to primary health care,” Guest said.

“They can access long-term care and health care. It’s a sense of community and you get peer support for their friends.”

He said peer-based overdose sites are working to meet urgent needs, such as an increase in overdoses linked to a toxic and unregulated drug supply that is “so unpredictable”.

The WFPS administered the opioid overdose antidote Naloxone to 1,901 patients last year, more than double the 2019 totals, according to WFPS data. Firefighters and paramedics have given it to more than 1,600 patients this year by the end of September.

WATCH | A paramedic calls for compassion in the context of an overdose crisis:

Paramedic calls for compassion amid overdose crisis

Paramedic Cory Guest, public education coordinator for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, says there needs to be more compassion and less stigma surrounding drug use amid rising drug deaths. overdose in Manitoba.

The Manitoba Harm Reduction Network and other community groups supported Sunshine House’s request for exemption.

Shohan Illsley, the network’s executive director, said the reason some find supervised consumption services controversial stems from the “war on drugs” mentalities of the past decades.

“When we’re indoctrinated to think about it that way, we don’t think about the realities and what’s really happening to people on the ground,” she said.

“How are we going to make sure that person stays safe and doesn’t die from a toxic drug supply? Some of the ways we could do that are to have safer consumer services, providing a supply sure.”