Lethbridge supervised drug site defunded by government to shut down end of month

LETHBRIDGE, Alta. — The operator of one of the busiest supervised drug consumption sites in North America is shutting down at the end of the month.

The Alberta government pulled its funding from ARCHES in Lethbridge in July after an audit revealed financial irregularities.

"ARCHES has worked closely with Alberta Health in order to ensure a smooth program transition for all impacted clients and stakeholders," its board of directors said in a statement this week. 

A report by accounting firm Deloitte commissioned by the province found $1.6 million unaccounted for at the non-profit.

It also discovered $13,000 was used for parties, staff retreats and gift cards, and thousands more was spent on travel — including $4,300 for a manager to attend a conference in Portugal.

The ARCHES board said it would end the supervised drug site, needle debris pickup program and outreach in the southern Alberta city as of Aug. 31.

"The board would like to acknowledge the staff that continue to provide a high level of care to the clients and work through this difficult transition," the statement said. "They have never wavered in their dedication and we thank them for doing this work for the last few years."

A quarterly surveillance report from Alberta Health showed a monthly average of 439 clients made more than 60,000 visits to the Lethbridge site in the first three months of this year.

A spokeswoman for Jason Luan, Alberta's associate minister of mental health and addictions, said a mobile overdose prevention site would begin operating on Monday.

"The site will work with local partners, like the Lethbridge Shelter and Resource Centre, with a heavy emphasis on access to recovery-oriented supports, such as transitional shelter, detox and referral to treatment," Kassandra Kitz said in an emailed statement.

She said needle debris pickup would continue and may be increased.

Kitz said the mobile site would have enough capacity to serve all ARCHES clients, based on data from the current operator.

ARCHES has 13 injection booths, two inhalation rooms and a space for people to be monitored after they've used their drugs.

Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said she doubts a mobile site that can accommodate three to five people at a time would be able to fill the gap.

"So there will be people turned away who will then inject somewhere alone, somewhere in public," said Schulz, whose 25-year-old son, Danny, died from an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2014.

"There will be more needle debris and there will certainly be more deaths."

Schulz said a school district or hospital would never be allowed to stop operating in cases of financial mismanagement — someone new would take over.

"Would we shut down the entire school system or the entire hospital? That is the part that I really, really don't understand," she said.

"This is a vital health service and the City of Lethbridge will be worse off without ARCHES ... It's kept needles out of the community. It's kept people safe. It's made sure that ambulances are on the road attending to other issues."

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 13, 2020 


The Canadian Press