Agency looking to open overdose prevention site in Saint John amid 'poisoned' drug supply

·5 min read
The Avenue B harm reduction organization in Saint John is working on plans to open an overdose prevention site in the city, according to executive director Julie Dingwell. (CBC - image credit)
The Avenue B harm reduction organization in Saint John is working on plans to open an overdose prevention site in the city, according to executive director Julie Dingwell. (CBC - image credit)

A harm reduction organization in Saint John is preparing to apply to Health Canada for a licence to operate an overdose prevention site, as they grapple with a "poisoned" drug supply on the street.

Julie Dingwell says three clients of Avenue B died last week, and a couple more in the week before that.

Some were experienced drug users, but Dingwell said the addition of fentanyl in street drugs means people no longer know what they're taking.

"We're just in constant grief here with losing people," said Dingwell, who is Avenue B's executive director. "We lost a couple people that we've worked with for 20 years."

Avenue B is planning to build a new facility on Waterloo Street in Saint John's uptown, but in the meantime, Dingwell is looking for another spot to open the overdose prevention site.

For her, the need is urgent, a matter of life and death.

"We just want to keep people alive," she said.

It would be the second overdose prevention site in the province, after Ensemble Greater Moncton opened a site late last year. The clinic offers people a safe place to test and use their substances, where staff can intervene if they have a negative reaction.

In March, after a spate of opioid overdoses in the community, at least two people were revived at the Moncton site.

"Their site has gone very well," Dingwell said.

"I'm hoping the province looks at that and says, 'Oh look, it's been so successful in Moncton, we're ready.'"

'Much higher levels of fentanyl'

Saint John Police Chief Robert Bruce said officers used to see a call for an overdose once every three or four days. Now, Bruce said it's not uncommon to see one or two calls per shift.

Overdose calls were up 30 per cent between January and April of this year compared to 2021, which was already up significantly over the same stretch in 2020, according to Bruce.

In some of those cases, people have died and Bruce said testing from the coroner has found "much higher levels of fentanyl."

"Some of the people know what they can handle and what they can't because they've been addicted for some time," he said.

"When they overdose, then you know something isn't right."

Trevor Pritchard/CBC
Trevor Pritchard/CBC

All of the police force's supervisors carry Narcan, which can be used to revive someone after an opioid overdose. Sometimes it can take two or three doses, Bruce said, because of the "increasing toxicity" of the drugs.

"We're just about to go to Narcan in every car for our members, just because of the amount of people that we're running into," Bruce said.

"Before it was alright to have a patrol supervisor that had it and could bring it to you fairly quickly, but now we're finding that our officers are going to more of these, so they require it in the vehicle."

Like Dingwell, he too feels there's a sense of urgency when it comes to Avenue B's plan to open an overdose prevention site.

"Avenue B, they're on the ground, they're there every day, they're looking into the eyes of people," Bruce said.

"They know what the issues are. So if they're looking at trying something new, then I'm totally interested in finding out what we can do, how we contribute, how we can work together to try to at least minimize the overdoses that we're seeing."

Bruce has created a community action group with "on-the-ground practitioners" ranging from Dingwell with Avenue B, to other social agencies, youth services and provincial correctional staff. It's all part of a belief Bruce has that police can't arrest their way out of the problem, that it requires solving deeper social issues.

One committee within that group focuses specifically on substance use, in addition to committees on connected issues like homelessness.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

"We're a relatively small city comparatively in this country, but we certainly have big city problems here," the police chief said.

"They're related to mental health, substance use and homelessness."

No timeline from provincial government

At Avenue B, Dingwell is assembling a team to "get everything in order" ahead of applying for a licence to operate the overdose prevention site. Once they get a green light, Dingwell believes they'll be ready to move quickly to open.

But first, the non-profit agency needs support from the provincial government to hire staff and outfit the site.

"Implementing overdose prevention sites" is listed as a priority in the province's 2021-25 mental health and addiction plan, but the government hasn't provided a timeline for when it might fund additional overdose prevention sites.

No one from the Department of Health was made available for an interview.

Submitted by Debby Warren
Submitted by Debby Warren

"Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS) provide a much-needed service to people who use various substances, especially for those who are precariously housed or homeless," Department of Health spokesperson Coreen Enos wrote in an emailed statement.

Enos said the department is continuing "to work with community partners to understand the needs and support the community-led plans for more Overdose Prevention Sites across New Brunswick."

"When those details are finalized, the provincial government will have more to share with the public," Enos wrote.

'Ongoing grief'

Beyond an overdose prevention site, Dingwell would like to see a safe supply of opioids. A clinic in the city offers a safe, prescribed supply, but Dingwell said it's not enough for the "hundreds" of clients at Avenue B. She would also like to see the government decriminalize possession of some substances for personal use.

"We just have to be thinking much harder about what we can do to keep people alive," she said.

"It's terrible the amount of ongoing grief that we have to work with."

When asked about the idea of decriminalization, Bruce said nothing should be off the table. He said the New Brunswick Chiefs of Police are studying the effect of decriminalization in British Columbia.

"What we're doing now isn't working that well," he said. "So there must be other ways to do it. We have to do a better job."

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