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An Alberta library's new take on access to information: Drug testing kits

The Banff Public Library already had naloxone, a fast-acting drug used to temporarily reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, on hand for its staff to use in emergencies. Now it has also partnered with primary care networks in the area to offer free drug testing kits to the public. (Submitted by Jessia Arsenio - image credit)
The Banff Public Library already had naloxone, a fast-acting drug used to temporarily reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, on hand for its staff to use in emergencies. Now it has also partnered with primary care networks in the area to offer free drug testing kits to the public. (Submitted by Jessia Arsenio - image credit)

An Alberta library kicked off the year with a unique pilot program that blends harm reduction and access to information principles to help address the provincial opioid crisis.

The Banff Public Library partnered with primary care networks in the area to offer free drug testing kits across the Bow Valley in the lead up to New Year's Eve.

"If you think of the traditional place of libraries, you have the patrons, and a public, that wants to know things, and a library facilitates getting that knowledge," said the Banff library's Jessia Arsenio.

"In this case, it's 'am I going to be safe tonight? How can I make sure of that?' People do want to know what is in the substances they're taking; they just often don't have the tools to confirm that information."

Before working at the library, Arsenio occasionally sold stickers — this year's batch was emblazoned with a snowboarder and the words 'Banff Broken Bones Club' — donating the proceeds to charity. Earlier this year, he took up a project that was half street performance, half nightlife outreach coordinator.

Arsenio would ride his bike around town playing music, during which he'd help revellers find cabs, comfort those who "seemed to be having a bad time" and check in on peer groups he knew were using substances. Through this time, and with this year's batch of sticker profits going toward harm reduction, he'd ask people what they'd want to see the money spent on.

"Most people just didn't want to be accidentally taking fentanyl," he said.

Submitted by Jessia Arsenio
Submitted by Jessia Arsenio

When Arsenio approached the library, where he works as an access and inclusion assistant, it seemed well-suited for the organization, which is moving toward deploying more social wellness programs. In addition, Banff has an earned reputation for a place people go to enjoy themselves, he says.

"People come to Banff to work, to enjoy themselves, and sometimes to party."

Alberta opioid deaths

The fentanyl-testing kits are one tool that may help mitigate the opioid crisis in Alberta.

If current trends continue, opioid deaths in the province may be on track to match or slightly exceed those in 2021, the deadliest in Alberta's history. According to data from the time period that has so far been released by the province, there were 976 drug poisoning deaths from January to August 2022, compared to 969 in the same period the year before.

Rather than taking an abstinence only approach to the public emergency, Arsenio wants to keep people safe and reduce stigma.

'I'm handing out helmets'

"This isn't about moralizing it, it's just about providing one tool," he said. "I'm handing out helmets, but I'm not telling people to get on a bike. As far as I'm concerned people are going to be cycling anyway."

Not everyone, however, is on board with the approach. A spokesperson for the United Conservative government's mental health and addiction ministry said they have some concerns around the liability and the potential legality of the practice.

"It's important to be clear that all illicit drugs should always be considered dangerous and potentially deadly," said Colin Aitchison.

For his part, Arsenio doesn't see providing the tool as enabling drug use.

"People are going to be doing substances," said Arsenio. Those who were not already going to do drugs will not suddenly decide to opt in if testing kits become available, he says.

"That's not the decision-making process that people enter into."

The kits were available at every pharmacy and clinic in Banff, as well as locations in Lake Louise and Canmore, and Arsenio just confirmed plans to expand the program into Morley, Alta. Arsenio said there are multiple outcomes that he's using to measure success, including changing attitudes.

"If there is even one person that says 'hey, this is a positive test result — maybe let's forgo it,' if it connects people to resources? Incredible."

The Calgary library's approach to addiction 

While the pandemic and economic downturn have created a different sense of urgency, libraries have a long history of reacting to the public face of addiction and mental health, says Mary Kapusta, a spokesperson for the Calgary Public Library.

"For the library these are not new conversations," she said.

"We've had naloxone available at select locations administered by our security for coming up to five years," said Kapusta. Naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, is an effective method of reversing an opioid overdose.

"There are those response tools that are incredibly important as we try and help people in these unimaginable times, but there are also has to be proactive solutions."

Preventative drug overdose policy can take the form of making resources available for people to be make more informed decisions about what they choose to imbibe, or it can look like addressing the root causes of mental health and addiction.

For Kapusta and the CPL, this takes several forms including community partnerships.

Courtesy Calgary Public Library
Courtesy Calgary Public Library

One of those relationships includes a pilot program run in collaboration with Wood's Homes. The 'wellness desk,' offers free mental health and addictions support and is open four days a week at the Central Library. Opened in 2020, it has since expanded to CPL's Shawnessy and Crowfoot locations, in response to what the library saw as a growing need for supports.

"I think it is impossible for anyone in Calgary to not see the urgency of our mental health and addictions crisis," said Kapusta.

Libraries can also provide the space for difficult conversations about the intersecting impacts of addiction and mental health, and day-to-day struggle, said Kapusta. And with more than 340,000 square feet of public space, the CPL is well-positioned to do just that.

"The people that use those spaces come from every background, every experience," she said. "It is really important as a a democratic space that those people feel welcome and valued and respected in those spaces."

For anyone struggling with an addiction, provincial resources include: