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Islanders are using illegal drugs and are often doing so out of public sight, alone in their homes or in spaces such as bank doorways or behind buildings.
But, like in other provinces, P.E.I.’s drug supply has often become contaminated with substances like fentanyl.
This is why two members of PEERS Alliance, a non-profit group that provides sexual health and harm reduction services, say it is past time for the P.E.I. government to establish an overdose prevention site.
The site would be a legally-sanctioned place where individuals could consume illicit drugs in the presence of trained health professionals.
On Wednesday, Brittany Jakubiec and Angele DesRoches of PEERS Alliance urged a legislative standing committee to recommend the establishment of an overdose prevention site to P.E.I.’s legislature.
“What the evidence suggests is that supervised consumption services are very effective in saving lives, connecting people to other health and social services and improving health and wellness outcomes with a significantly marginalized population of folks," DesRoches told the committee.
DesRoches said there have been no fatal overdoses within any of Canada’s 37 supervised consumption sites in Canada.
An overdose prevention site would be short-term in nature but could be established quicker than a more formalized safe consumption site, commonly described as a safe injection site. Health Canada has frequently extended exemptions to the Controlled Substances Act for provinces and community groups that open safe consumption sites, although this would require a new application after six months.
DesRoches said the presence of such a site would reduce stigma around drug use and addiction.
“We clearly need non-judgmental, non-coercive services explicitly for people who consume illicit substances. And an overdose prevention site would be a big step in the right direction," DesRoches said.
DesRoches said her group has heard anecdotal evidence of increased contamination of illicit drugs since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. She has also heard reports that individuals have encountered substances that appear to be methamphetamines but that turn black when cooked. This is a sign of contamination.
Use of heroin and fentanyl appears to be increasing on P.E.I. as individuals may have lost access to a pharmaceutical supply.
DesRoches was asked by Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly to give her rating of current harm reduction services in P.E.I., on a scale of 1 to 10.
“Three,” DesRoches said.
DesRoches said P.E.I. has a good needle exchange program and credited the staff working with this program. But the service is only open three days a week at limited hours.
“That's an example of a service being built for the service providers rather than the client," she said.
"We have very few services that are specifically, explicitly targeted to folks who are consuming illicit substances and, for whatever reason, have no interest in stopping."
PEERS Alliance conducted a survey of 39 individuals who use illicit drugs on P.E.I. It found that 31 have consumed these drugs while alone. Fatal overdoses frequently occur when an individual is using a substance alone.
Thirty individuals said they did not own a naloxone kit, which can be used to reverse an overdose.
Charlottetown Police Chief Paul Smith, who also spoke before the committee, said a safe consumption site, like other harm reduction services, would be important. But he said it could also generate resistance in local communities.
"It certainly does have its merits in moving things forward. When you have such a site, you can have less public consumption because now people have a place where they can go. It would reduce the needle discard in public spaces," Smith said in an interview.