A new study out of the University of Alberta shows a correlation between increased visits to supervised consumption sites and decreased fentanyl overdose deaths.
The study, published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, used publicly available data from opioid-response reports between 2017 and 2020 published by the Government of Alberta along with the number of visits to supervised consumption sites.
Researchers found a “statistically significant” link between the two data sets, suggesting increased visits to supervised consumption sites play a role in fewer overdose deaths.
Lead researcher Tyler Marshall said fentanyl-related overdose deaths dropped to 103 by Q4 2019 from 178 at Q4 2017 while at the same time, visits supervised consumption sites visits were increasing. But the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020, overdose deaths doubled while supervised consumption site visits decreased by 64 per cent.
“From our data, they’re clearly playing some type of role. We know that when people use alone, that is a serious risk of overdose. You can’t administer Naloxone on yourself,” Marshall said.
“So if somebody is there and overdoses, or if people are injecting drugs like methamphetamine and opioids (and) someone’s there, the probability of dying is substantially less … so it makes sense, the more people that use the service, you would expect fewer deaths.”
The research led by Marshall, a doctoral candidate, and U of A psychiatry professor Andrew Greenshaw, also shows that as visits to safe consumption sites decrease due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased by 118.4 per cent.
The study comes at a time when Alberta is facing an overdose crisis. Between January and March of this year, 346 Albertans died of an accidental opioid overdose, and of those, 109 were in Edmonton, the latest provincial data shows.
In late May, three men died together of suspected overdoses in a central Edmonton park.
Alberta Health Services also had to issue a public alert after paramedics responded to 55 opioid-related calls over two days in the Edmonton Zone.
There’s a strong indication that more people are using substances alone during the pandemic, which is a “huge risk factor,” but more data is needed to confirm it, Marshall said.
Marshall, who has a master’s degree in public health, has been interested in drug policy work and harm reduction for a while. He has also done volunteer work at a harm reduction centre in Red Deer.
He noted the public might not be aware that safe consumption sites also offer services other than a safe place to use drugs.
“I saw wound care and Hepatitis-C testing, education around Naloxone, drug abuse education, referral to several different other health and social services, income support. And then there’s a wide variety of staffing, too — there are paramedics, nurses, LPNs, peer support workers.”
While the study’s findings are only a correlation, more overdose data continues to be published. Marshall said he hopes this study prompts more research into safe consumption sites.
“We hope it just kind of a foot in the door for balanced research on the topic,” he said. “Hopefully, people will see it and take a similar approach.”