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May 2018 Mayor Column

Like many other cities, we're dealing with an opioid crisis in Lethbridge that continues to escalate and claim the lives of sons, daughters, siblings, parents and grandparents in our community.

To give you an idea of how the scope of the opioid crisis has grown in the past year, I'll share some data that City Council members heard in a recent update from members of the Executive Leaders Coalition on Opioid Use. According to Alberta Health Services (AHS) statistics, there were 589 fentanyl overdose deaths across Alberta in 2017, an increase of 69 per cent from the total of 349 deaths in 2016.

In Lethbridge in 2017 there were 18 fentanyl overdose deaths, and the death rate in this city was the third-highest among Alberta cities at a rate of 19 deaths per 100,000 people. Provincially, the number of fentanyl deaths has roughly doubled almost every year since 2011 when there were six.

In addition to fentanyl, the use of carfentanil – an opioid used by veterinarians on very large animals such as elephants – has also become more prominent in the past year. A lethal batch of carfentanil is blamed for 42 overdoses that occurred over a single weekend in Lethbridge in late February.

I've used this space a couple of times to talk about the coordinated effort among 16 organizations in our city to deal with this crisis of addiction as effectively as possible. The Executive Leaders Coalition on Opioid Use has been meeting regularly since November 2016 to respond to this drug crisis. The primary goal is to save lives by preventing fatal overdoses of people in our community who, for a variety of reasons, have become addicted to opioids and other highly-addictive drugs.

We are also mindful of the collateral effects this crisis is having in our community. Most concerning to our residents, based on the feedback I've received, is the incidence of used needles and other drug debris in some of our public spaces. A number of programs and resources have been established to deal with this hazard, and we continue our efforts to create awareness so that if residents encounter needle debris or drug consumption in public places, they know who they can contact to have it dealt with.

If you have questions about safe needle disposal, some very helpful information is available at www.lethbridge.ca/needle. If you find needle debris, you can call the ARCHES Needle Pickup Hotline at 403-332-0722 to provide details on the location, and their team will respond promptly to clean it up safely. In some instances, where a location is used repeatedly for drug consumption, it may not be long before more debris shows up after previous debris has been cleaned up. The hours for this hotline service are 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, except statutory holidays.

In locations where needle debris is a chronic problem, needle disposal boxes have been installed to discourage the disposal of needles onto the ground. Currently, there are 12 needle disposal boxes installed in 11 public spaces where needle debris has been a recurring problem. These boxes are emptied regularly, and the number of needles collected from each one is tracked, so that changes or shifts in use can be monitored.

A Supervised Consumption Services (SCS) site opened in Lethbridge in late February. The news from the first two months of operation is both encouraging and troubling at the same time. What's encouraging is that the SCS site is being well used by the vulnerable population it serves. What's troubling is that the crisis has escalated, and demand at the SCS site is surpassing expectations – so much so that more capacity is needed.

The SCS site can't eliminate the problem of public drug use and needle debris, but I shudder to think what the situation in our city would be like without it. Since the SCS site opened, there have already been more than 8,000 visits by clients who have used it in a controlled, medically-supervised environment. The advantage is that staff can build relationships with clients and refer them to support services. Without this site available in our city, all that drug consumption would be happening in our community, often in public places.

To date, there have been more than 70 overdoses by clients using the site, and all of them have survived thanks to immediate medical intervention by staff.

I've heard from residents who wonder what they should do if they encounter public drug use. The Diversion Outreach Team (DOT) provides support for our vulnerable population and are the right people to call if you witness drug consumption in public places. You can reach the DOT at 403-892-3707 Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In the case of an emergency, you should call 911. If you witness or are aware of suspected drug trafficking activity, please contact the Lethbridge Police Service at 403-328-4444 or Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-TIPS.

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City Council continues to be busy on a number of fronts. We've made excellent progress in developing our strategic plan for our term in office. We are putting the finishing touches on it, and we expect to be able to share it with our community shortly.

Work is also progressing well in our search for a new city manager. Our four-member search committee has a short list of candidates, and we will be conducting interviews during the month of May. We hope to announce a new city manager in the coming weeks.

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If you have questions about what cannabis legalization will mean for our community, I encourage you to attend a community meeting we'll be holding on Monday, May 28 to help inform our residents on this issue. This will be an opportunity for City Council members and Lethbridge residents to hear from a panel of experts about the federal and provincial legal framework, provincial regulations, and local land-use planning. You can attend this Community Issues Committee meeting and ask questions or watch it streamed live at www.lethbridge.ca. If you can't attend, you can submit your questions to the panel in advance until May 22 at www.lethbridge.ca/cannabis

Mayor Chris Spearman
May 18, 2018