‘Can’t keep letting fentanyl win’: Safe supply of drugs needed to fight Winnipeg’s crisis, says advocate | CBC News

A safe place to consume drugs is vital to saving lives, but even more crucial in the harm-reduction approach is providing a safe supply of drugs, says a Winnipeg mom whose son died from fentanyl poisoning.

“We won’t change things enough unless we do something about the supply. That’s the most important thing that we have to move forward on,” said Arlene Last-Kolb, co-founder of Overdose Awareness Manitoba and member of Moms Stop the Harm.

“We just have to convince the people that it can really make the difference, that this is the right way to go. We need to do this today.”

Since the death of her 24-year-old son Jessie in July 2014, Last-Kolb has lobbied for compassionate treatment, including a safer drug supply.

Street drugs are now being laced with highly-addictive opioids and other substances like animal tranquilizers, making them highly dangerous, in many cases.

Last year, preliminary data says there were 445 suspected overdose deaths in Manitoba, with 54 in December alone.

“I want everybody to know that we’re not just talking about people that live on the street. People are dying in our homes, in our basements,” said Last-Kolb.

You can’t keep telling people to not take drugs if they are hooked — it’s not possible for them, she added.

Stigma and shame also keep them from seeking help and push them to dangerous places to feed the addiction, said Last-Kolb.

The solution, she said, is to give them what they need to stay alive while they seek help.

“Our government has the power to change things. Replace the toxic street drugs with a regulated supply of drugs. We could look at it the same way that we’ve done cannabis, that we’ve done alcohol,” she said.

“Let’s not call it safe supply [or] safe regulated supply. Let’s call it doing the right thing.”

By starting with a safe supply and an open discussion, it may be possible for someone to get the support they need to work toward easing off opioids, said Last-Kolb.

“We can’t keep letting fentanyl win. Jessie sure didn’t want to die.”

Report calls for ‘safe and sanctioned drug supply’

An independent report released on Thursday, evaluating the first year of Winnipeg’s mobile overdose prevention site (MOPS), says while the program has exceeded expectations and prevented many drug deaths, more needs to be done to ensure a safe supply of drugs.

The mobile site, a converted RV operated by Sunshine House, travels around Winnipeg’s core area providing a supervised consumption site, while also distributing harm reduction supplies and testing drugs.

In its first year, from October 2022 to October 2023, the MOPS team recorded 26,154 visits, with drugs consumed 7,086 times. There were zero deaths.

A large recreation vehicle is painted with flowers and butterflies on the side.
Sunshine House’s MOPS, or mobile overdose prevention site, travels around Winnipeg’s core area providing a safe consumption site while also distributing harm reduction supplies. (Radio-Canada)

The report advocates for the creation of several supervised consumption sites in Winnipeg to increase those benefits.

But “if we truly want to stop toxic drug poisonings, we should look at having a safe and sanctioned drug supply,” the report states.

It acknowledges that’s an “often politically contentious” subject, but says it “is also a useful tool to reduce the harms caused by toxic drugs and unknown poly-drug combinations.”

According to the report, government of Canada early research findings suggest safe supply is associated with a range of benefits, including lower overdose rates, reduced hospital admissions and ER visits, decreased criminal activity, and improved connections to care and treatment for people who have not had those supports.

Last-Kolb said toxic drugs are not only “killing our loved ones every day, but the toxicity is causing such great damage to our loved ones that it is having a rippling effect on our whole community.”

“Everybody needs to worry about it because everybody is affected by what is happening in our province, whether that is through death, crime, mental health, everything.”

A combination of supervised consumption sites and safer supply would be powerful, but still not enough against the drug crisis, the report states. 

“Each of these services are intended to complement a much more robust and holistic range of supports” backed by mental health and crisis response services, holistic housing, and community connections, it says.

“People who use drugs may seek treatment and then relapse many times, and the services must remain available throughout each person’s journey.”

A person wearing glasses and a flowery scarf is pictured.
Sunshine House executive director Levi Foy says the mobile site is needed but is not the solution, rather it is part of a larger network of care. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Sunshine House executive director Levi Foy agreed.

“This [MOPS] is part of a larger network, a larger part of caring for one another and caring for individuals in new and unique ways that our current system just is not managing,” he said at a news conference on Thursday, where the report was released.

Last-Kolb said she won’t stop pushing until that full vision of care is complete.

“I would not be here if I didn’t think that this was important,” she said. “I will not get my son back. But at least I will know that I did all I could to do the right thing.

“If your child dies, no amount of treatment, no amount of justice, no amount of policing is going to bring them back.”

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