Fraser Health will quickly identify priority sites for supervised drug consumption as part of a broader strategy to contain a surge in illicit drug overdoses.
Surrey is certain to be one of the proposed locations, but health authority officials aren’t yet saying if they will also propose sites in other drug-troubled downtowns such as Langley City, Maple Ridge and Abbotsford.
“We’re at early stages of identifying priority communities and having initial conversations, dialogue and engagement with municipalities,” said Dr. Victoria Lee, Fraser’s chief medical health officer.
Health authority officials made the announcement after a sudden surge in overdoses in the north Surrey area, with 43 recorded over the weekend.
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.
Vancouver has B.C.’s only two supervised injection sites so far, but Vancouver Coastal Health Authority has indicated it will seek up to five more, while other health authorities are expected to pursue them in cities such as Victoria, Kelowna and Kamloops.
Fraser Health had not before signaled its intent to pursue supervised consumption sites, so named because they serve not just injection drug users.
It’s not expected to be a speedy process.
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.”
Even more modest harm reduction strategies have at times been controversial among Fraser Valley politicians.
Supporters say supervised use sites greatly reduce fatal overdoses and the spread of infectious disease among users, while also providing an avenue to connect those at risk to services that could help transform their lives.
Opponents believe they have the effect of entrenching drug use in communities and favour a less tolerant approach.
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 emailed statement 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.
“We view these as public health issues, and harm reduction programs like supervised injection services are a key part of our evidence-based approach,” said the ministry statement.
It says any new supervised sites must have support of all levels of government, the community and other stakeholders.
“Given the recent spike in overdoses in Surrey and the current public health emergency – this is a discussion that needs to take place. It appears that the new federal government recognizes the health benefits of supervised injections services and is much more supportive of such facilities than the previous administration.”
Fraser Health says its recently approved overdose prevention and response strategy goes far beyond supervised sites.
“There is no single solution to the public health emergency we are facing,” Lee said. “It is a complex concern that requires a multi-faceted approach to prevent overdoses, encourage safe consumption, and provide treatment options.”
The region last fall began increasing the number of take-home naloxone kits provided to overdose patients who end up in emergency departments. All 12 emergency departments are now registered to dispense the antidote kits.
Officials say 857 take-home naloxone kits were dispensed via emergency department staff, public health units or community partners between January and May, a 10-fold increase from 2015.
Lee said Fraser will also continue region-wide efforts to equip at-risk populations and their friends and family with naloxone, including the use of police and fire departments, BC Housing and other organizations.
Also promised are public awareness campaigns targeting different types of drug users and better supports to improve access to opioid substitution such as suboxone.
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.
There have been 127 overdose deaths in the Fraser Health region in the first six months of this year.