Members of the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society believe their pop-up overdose prevention site is not illegal

In a presentation to the Lethbridge Police Commission, members of the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society made it clear they are not breaking new ground by offering pop-up overdose prevention services in the city.

“Alberta is actually one of the only provinces to not have this type of overdose prevention site,” said society member Kaley Ann Beaudoin.

Members of the society said they wanted to make a presentation to explain what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and why they believe it’s not illegal.

“We felt there was misinformation going around,” added Beaudoin.

Police Commission Chair Simon Griffiths thanked the group for their presentation. None of the commissioners offered comments, or asked questions.

Following the meeting Lethbridge Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh told reporters it’s always concerning when agencies are not going through proper procedure to get licensing and clearance from Health Canada.

“There’s always safety concerns in any facility when you’re dealing with drug use overdose and overdose issues,” said Mehdizadeh.

He said the law is clear on the issue of providing overdose prevention services without obtaining proper approvals, but added the Lethbridge Police Service is not there to use a heavy-handed approach in relation to the law.

“We haven’t seen any illegal activities so far, which is a good thing, but even when we do like any case it's subject to investigation and then discretion on where we want to go with that information and how we deal with it.”

The Lethbridge Police Service has monitored the pop-up site on four of the five nights the tent was set up in downtown parks.

Members of the Overdose Prevention Society said they have been connecting with drug users in the community, and discovered many aren’t using the mobile trailer, that Alberta Health Services brought in after the government closed the Supervised Consumption Site at the end of August.

“What we wanted to do was provide an alternative,” said Beaudoin.

She added the group wants to work harmoniously with AHS and complement the service the government is providing.

“This crisis is urgent. People are dying every day, so we need to be out here when that’s happening.”

Beaudoin pointed to data the provincial government released last month, which indicated the number of opioid deaths more than doubled in Alberta during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to that report, overall there have been 449 opioid-related deaths in the first six months of 2020, a 28 per cent increase from a year earlier.

The Overdose Prevention Society said there were 22 overdose deaths in Lethbridge during the first six months of this year, and most have occurred in the downtown area, specifically Galt Gardens.

Beaudoin said they are not trying to undermine services being provided by AHS. “No one person or no one organization is going to be able to save everyone. It’s a team effort and the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society is just doing what they can to help where we have the resources and people available.”

Chief Mehdizadeh said the concept of providing pop-up overdose prevention services is a relatively new phenomenon. “The intent is good, but the way they are going about it is wrong.”

The city has issued two $300 tickets, for erecting a tent and providing a service without having a permit.

Earlier this week, Jason Luan, Associate Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, said the mobile site is “adequate” and the new, unauthorized service needed to go.

“This illegal site contravenes the Criminal Code of Canada and we expect the City of Lethbridge and the Lethbridge Police Service to enforce the law,” said Luan in a statement.

Chief Mehdizadeh said he hasn’t felt any pressure from the Alberta government.

“It’s all about using discretion to do what’s right. If we take the tent down I’m sure that tomorrow it will be coming up, so is that the answer? I don’t think so.”

Similar sites

The Overdose Prevention Society said similar sites have been established in other municipalities, including Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.

Beaudoin said the Lethbridge group has been getting advice from a wide range of harm reduction networks across the country. 

“We are just really excited to be see this coming to Alberta and we hope to encourage other cities in Alberta to take a stand and help out their neighbours who are dying.”

Beaudoin said the group hopes to maintain the “positive and respectful” relationship with Lethbridge police going forward.

During four of the five nights the pop-up service has been in operation police officers have been in attendance, to keep the peace and watch for illegal activity.

Chief Mehdizadeh said LPS has had a discussion about how it plans to continue surveillance in the future, with peace officers or other personnel. “If it’s going for a long haul, we certainly have to use all resources at our disposal.”

He said they can still monitor the situation but call for assistance if a police officer is required.