By News Editor Aislinn Cottell
Nanaimo residents have taken the growing fentanyl crisis into their own hands in a bold and somewhat controversial move.
On Boxing Day, city councillor Gordon Fuller and a group of concerned volunteers set up a safe-injection—or safe-consumption, as named by organizers—site within a tent currently residing outside of City Hall. The tent is staffed by approximately 20 volunteers working in shifts of two or three, and offers medical supplies, food, and warmth to individuals seeking a safe place to use. Originally operating from 7 am to 7 pm, they have since changed hours to 7/8 am – 10 pm after feedback from patrons, of whom they’ve been seeing approximately 15–20 per day. They are attempting to keep one volunteer trained to administer naloxone on site at all times, and eventually hope to equip all volunteers with the necessary training to give the antidote.
The site is unsanctioned by the city, but Fuller says the death toll has become too high to ignore, with 25 fatal overdoses occurring in the first 11 months of 2016. The city council had been in discussions throughout the year on the possibility of safe injection sites, but Fuller came to the conclusion that action needed to be taken now.
“Nanaimo has had more overdose deaths per capita than anywhere else in BC. And the number of overdoses that are happening is just phenomenal, if you listen to the scanner on the radio,” he said. “There are just too many people dying. Four years ago, if you asked me about a safe injection site, I would not have advocated for it. But with fentanyl, and now carfentanyl in the works, things are just getting worse and worse.”
Carfentanyl is a synthetic opioid, chemically related to fentanyl, consisting of heroin laced with elephant tranquilizers. Depending on its purity, carfentanyl can be up to 100 times more potent than fentanyl, with only a few granules able to cause a fatal overdose. It has been identified as the result of a surge in overdoses in the United States over the past year, Ohio being the hardest hit with 343 confirmed seizures. Reports of the drug in Canada are still scarce due to lack of screening, but traces were found by the Vancouver Police Department in several grams of heroin seized from a man arrested on the Downtown Eastside in September.
In Nanaimo, several City Hall offices were shut down on December 29 and 30, following concerns raised by unionized workers regarding the safety of the operation, but they have since been reopened. The City has hired security to remain outside, and posted a warning sign that the site is unauthorized. In addition, several nearby businesses have also hired their own security.
“I think they overreacted a bit,” said Fuller. “The problem has been in the general [City Hall] area for a decade now. People use right behind where we’re located, and on this bluff that people have been partying on for forty years. For some reason, they didn’t seem to think security was necessary beforehand.”
The Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) has announced plans to open an official safe site as soon as a suitable location is found, but Fuller says their estimated opening time is still two to three weeks away. Meanwhile, he intends to keep the City Hall site operational. VIHA has also provided medical supplies to Fuller’s site, after they ran low while Harris House, their usual source, was closed.
There have been no overdoses so far, although the site experienced one incident concerning a member of the public who set up at the tent with the intention of preventing users’ entry. Volunteers contacted the police department to have the person removed.
“We believe we are saving lives, every time someone comes in and walks away, that’s a life saved. Some people seem to think that death is a better option–for me, I’m enabling them to make a better choice in the future,” says Fuller. “But by and large, the feedback from the community has been really positive, and myself and the volunteers really appreciate that.”
Cpl. John Stuart of the Nanaimo RCMP said that the situation is complex, but that the police are supportive of an extensive approach to dealing with the drug crisis.
“The RCMP is supportive of a comprehensive response to illicit drug abuse, and recognizes that this is an evolving issue in Canada,” he said.
Kim Fowler, the city’s chief sustainability officer, said that bylaw officers cannot shut down the site without direction from councillors.
“That actually requires a decision of council. A remedial order requires a resolution of council. A trespass requires a decision of council, and that is under the local government act or the community charter.”
Fuller says he thinks they should be okay to operate for the next few weeks, until a sanctioned site is erected.
“With Island Health recognizing that there really are no safety risks with what we’re doing, the city has now backed off on getting us to move,” he said. “I think the city has mitigated their risks for their liability aspects that they needed to – we will see how things go. We will be here, or we’ll be at another location on City property [until the new site opens].”
Aislinn is a third year Bachelor of Arts and Science student majoring in creative writing and minoring in chemistry. New to The Nav team this year, she’s enjoying finding out about all the interesting things happening on campus. Her hobbies include reading, drawing, Netflix, and the copious consumption of coffee.