WEATHER ALERT

Premier defends stance on safe sites

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Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson is defending her government’s decision to steer away from safe consumption sites for drug users, which numerous studies credit with helping to prevent overdose deaths.

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Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson is defending her government’s decision to steer away from safe consumption sites for drug users, which numerous studies credit with helping to prevent overdose deaths.

Stefanson, who favours a “recovery approach” to treating addiction, also says that evidence, not ideology, is behind her government’s rejection of such sites.

“This has nothing to do with ideology to me,” Stefanson said in a recent interview with The Brandon Sun.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson speaks with Brandon Sun reporter Ian Hitchen during a podcast interview on Friday. (Matt Goerzen/The Brandon Sun)

“In fact, people who look at supervised consumption sites as the panacea to end addictions issues, it’s just not right, it’s not true, and I would argue that perhaps some of those people are taking an ideological approach.”

Stefanson’s view on safe consumption sites was one of several subjects touched on during an interview with the Brandon Sun for a special edition of its “Sunny Side Up” podcast. The premier was interviewed on Friday while visiting Brandon to make a pair of funding announcements.

Questions about whether those funding announcements herald an election, perimeteritis, COVID-19 restrictions and homelessness were also put to Stefanson during the interview that can be heard for free through Spotify. Click on the link below.

The question of a safe consumption site, or safe injection site, was raised at the councillors’ debate during Brandon’s municipal election campaign. Reactions were varied among candidates, but experienced councillors Bruce Luebke and Shawn Berry — both since returned to city council after being acclaimed — said that if such a project were to go ahead, it would need the support of provincial and federal governments.

Last Wednesday, Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard said the province isn’t currently pursuing safe consumption sites, stating that a model hasn’t been found that fits the province and arguing that the best harm-reduction strategy was to “encourage people off the drugs.”

Tom Brodbeck, a columnist for the Sun’s sister paper, the Winnipeg Free Press, argued the province’s position is based on ideology, not evidence. Evidence from around the world shows that safe consumption sites reduce fatal overdoses and reduces the spread of infectious diseases, Brodbeck wrote — harm reduction initiatives (like safe consumption sites) and treatment aren’t mutually exclusive.

In the “Sunny Side Up” interview, Stefanson disagreed with the assertion she was being ideological.

“I don’t want to take an ideological approach,” Stefanson said. “I am taking a very practical and evidence-based approach when it comes to these very, very serious challenges.”

When asked why not include sites in a broader system of addressing addiction, Stefanson pointed to California, which she said is backing away from the idea due to “unintended consequences” such as increased crime and drug activity around the sites.

“Unintended consequences” is the same wording that California Gov. Gavin Newsom used in August when he vetoed a bill that would have legalized drug injection sites there: “The unlimited number of safe injection sites that this bill would authorize — facilities which could exist well into the later part of this decade — could induce a world of unintended consequences.”

However, a review of American media shows the issue was controversial — there are supporters of the idea and opponents — and it has been suggested Newsom’s veto was a political decision intended to ease his way to a run at the presidency.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson smiles during a podcast interview with Brandon Sun reporter Ian Hitchen at the Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation Makerspace on Friday afternoon. (Matt Goerzen/The Brandon Sun)

In regards to crime, a 2021 article in the Harm Reduction Journal criticized an Alberta report that concluded crime increased around such sites as flawed and found its conclusions questionable. The journal stated peer-reviewed research has found no evidence linking supervised consumption sites to increased crime.

Numerous studies into the effectiveness of safe consumption sites have made a connection between these services and reduced overdoses, although others suggest more research is needed.

However, Stefanson said evidence points toward a different direction, a “recovery approach” that gets people off drugs, which she says is something that helps people in the longer term.

“These are the areas that we believe will get real results, because it’s an evidence base, it’s been proven elsewhere,” Stefanson said, pointing to the government’s intent to invest in Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine clinics, and its provision of Naloxone kits and a NARCAN pilot project as means to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses.

“We are offering those supports to ensure that we tackle that challenge of overdose challenges and we think that that will be able to help address the issue.”

Generally, the recovery approach seems to be a holistic approach to helping people to help themselves. The Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine emphasizes four options for treatment: Advice, counselling, medications, and support.

The MyHealth Alberta website includes a description of the principles of recovery. While it includes support of experts, family friends, and community the emphasis is on the individual’s role in their recovery: “Your recovery is self-directed … The choices you make are yours and yours alone.”

» ihitchen@brandonsun.com

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