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'Drug cave', sealed in Charlottetown, highlights need for safe sites, advocates say

The interior of the "drug cave'' in Charlottetown is pictured here before the city's public works department cleaned out the cement tunnel and sealed off entrance into the site that was commonly used to consume and inject drugs.
The interior of the "drug cave'' in Charlottetown is pictured here before the city's public works department cleaned out the cement tunnel and sealed off entrance into the site that was commonly used to consume and inject drugs. - Contributed
CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. —

A dreary, cement tunnel in Charlottetown that has been home to drug users and transients for decades has been plugged by the city’s public works department.

“It’s been there a long time," says Charlottetown Police Services Deputy Chief Brad MacConnell. “It’s a place that’s kind of out of the way – discreet."

The tunnel, known to some simply as the drug cave, is located near the Boardwalk Professional Centre, where Public Health offers one of seven needle exchange sites in the province.

Charlottetown Coun. Greg Rivard, chairman of the police committee, says contents including mattresses were cleaned out of the tunnel. The interior was disinfected before mounds of dirt were used to prevent entrance.

“It was done for safety purposes," says Rivard. “This was not a safe place to be sleeping or staying at all."

Rivard says the intent is to have the tunnel permanently plugged.

Charlottetown Police Services Deputy Chief Brad MacConnell stands above the cement tunnel that has been sealed off by the city's public works department. The tunnel has long been a gathering spot for transients and drug users. - Jim Day
Charlottetown Police Services Deputy Chief Brad MacConnell stands above the cement tunnel that has been sealed off by the city's public works department. The tunnel has long been a gathering spot for transients and drug users. - Jim Day

Angele DesRoches, program co-ordinator with Peers Alliance, says the existence of spaces like the drug cave is indicative of the need for people to have safe spaces to consume substances.

She says P.E.I. lacks in the area of harm-reduction services.

“I am not sure if a safe site is on the radar for government," she adds.

Health Canada says supervised consumption sites in place across the country save lives and benefit communities. 

“They provide a safe, clean space for people to bring their own drugs to use, in the presence of trained staff," Health Canada states on its website. “This prevents accidental overdoses and reduces the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV. Supervised consumption sites may offer a range of evidence-based harm-reduction services, such as drug checking. The sites also provide access to important health and social services, including substance use treatment for those who are ready."

DesRoches does not view the drug cave as a safe site, noting there has never been power, running water or lights – “all things that you would have in a safer consumption site".

She says people were using the drug cave because they felt there wasn’t any other place to go.

She estimates at least a couple dozen people would regularly use the site.

DesRoches stresses that preventing access to the tunnel with not deter drug use.

“We are just pushing people away," she says.

Her concern with the tunnel being plugged is that more people will be taking drugs on their own without others around, thus putting themselves at a greater risk of harm if they were to overdose.

She notes Peers Alliance is developing an overdose prevention line, funded by the provincial Department of Health and Wellness, which would allow someone to listen in while a person is consuming drugs.

MacConnell says the police are willing to work with partners to find solutions to help reduce the risk facing drug users on P.E.I.

“It’s a conversation that has to be had with a broad group of stakeholders," he says.

MacConnell believes the province should be open to at least exploring the adoption of supervised consumption sites. 

“We wouldn’t be responsible if we didn’t entertain (the option)," he says.

Jim Day is the health reporter for The Guardian.

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