In Defence of Lethbridge ARCHES: Responding to Harm Reduction Controversies

A recent midnight insomnia scroll left me reading about Lethbridge’s supervised consumption services (SCS). When I had a meaningful conversation about it the next day, I was fired up. And today, international overdose awareness day, I am speaking up.

Every Canadian city seems to have a homelessness problem and a substantial population of people living in addiction. Yet the talk of the town is that Lethbridge, Alberta’s rates of addiction are exceptionally high. I’ve lived in this humble little city, for two years now. It’s populated by roughly 100, 000 citizens, dispersed in neighbourhoods around and on top of the hilly dry-wastelands. 

In 2018, the “busiest drug consumption site in North America” opened its doors right here. ‘Lethbridge ARCHES” is the organization behind the facility, formally known as the AIDS OutReach Community Harm Reduction Education Support Society. They have been around for longer than the “opioid crisis,” and do more than provide supervised consumption services. Sad as it may be, many citizens didn’t know they existed before all the SCS buzz. 

I used to work as a journalist in the city, so I got to meet a lot of people, see behind the scenes of city happenings, and live uncomfortably in the tension of myth and fact. Ever since my first conversation with the executive director of ARCHES, I’ve been interested and encouraged by their work. I’ve seen how they care for clients, loving them without strings attached. I’ve witnessed how attacked they’ve been, and I’ve even experienced low-grade attack over the internet for giving them a voice in the news.

So if I’m honest, writing this post is uncomfortable. It scares me to be vulnerable with something other than my own story. But I’m doing it anyway. I’m done with giving into silence, not voicing my thoughts out of fear. 

Taking off in three, two, one...

There are a few things that irritate me when I hear people talking about what’s happening in this city as it relates to supervised consumption services, “the opioid crisis,” and addiction. For starters, we think we know what we’re talking about, but really have no clue. We use the wrong terminology and don’t understand the language. No, it’s not a “safe-consumption-site.” Drugs aren’t safe. It is a site where Supervised Consumption Services are offered. No, Lethbridge isn’t the “only place in the world” that provides this type of care, in fact, it’s one of seven places in Alberta alone that’s approved by Health Canada for monitored drug consumption.

Another thing that irks me is the mindless use of the word “addict.” Othering people will always close us off to compassion.

I respect and applaud those who are sold on the abstinence approach. It’s powerful, and I actually agree with that philosophy for overcoming addiction. Still I recognize that not everyone is there yet in their journey.  Therefore, I do think that harm reduction plays an important role. These strategies are highly controversial. Needle distribution programs, for example, help reduce the amount of disease spread through sharing needles. Nearly 19% of drug users reported borrowing or lending used needles. This increases the risk of infectious diseases by a lot and makes serious infections common, not to mention overdoses. Because of these positives, credible organizations like the WHO (World Health Organization) say that harm reduction strategies are necessary to help protect drug users. The positives are obvious: People who are injecting receive a clean one instead of ones from the back alley or ones that’ve used by three people prior. The flip-side? Also obvious: more needles means more needle debris.

Yes, needles are in the playgrounds. No, that’s not okay. It’s for sure a safety hazard!  It would be revolutionary to have one practical solution that fixed the root crisis and all of the secondary issues that come from the central problem. But is that ever the case with such a political, complex, and wide-spread problem?

So what should our response be to all of this? Innovative strategies and missional efforts are nice. If it’s on your heart to make sandwiches or pray for deliverance, go for it.  City-wide united ambitions are a nice idea, and the hope for that should not be lost. I do wonder if our idealistic approaches are much more grandiose than what’s needed. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we all committed to quit gossiping. I wonder what would happen if we put forth the effort to speak truthfully or not at all. I wonder if this could be the best catalyst to any sort of program or strategy.

Here’s some ideas I have for how this can start to happen.

1.  WATCH OUR TONGUES. AND FINGERS.

Let me ask, has banter on social media helped anything?

You’re obviously allowed to disagree with approaches or philosophies. Yet in the wake of disagreement lays another choice: to hate or to love. And let me just say, shooting paintballs at the building is the last thing they need. Don’t you think processing what the staff have to deal with everyday at work is hard enough? They love clients unconditionally and develop relationships with them. They walk with them through the highs and lows of addiction. And they do that for many clients at once, meaning they’re riding many roller coasters simultaneously - not to mention their own struggles in life. They meet them where they’re at and treat them with dignity. They build relationships, and contrary to popular belief according to recent social media explosions, they are well trained. 

Here’s some gold for you: misinformed comments regarding staff qualifications (or lack thereof) have been flooding the internet. The truth? Their team is comprised of Registered Nurses, Primary Care Paramedics, and Licensed Professionals Nurses on the medical team. One certified Addictions Counsellor is on shift at all times, and Harm Reduction Specialists (with a variety of backgrounds ranging from degrees in the Human Services to extensive history working in the field, and/or lived experience themselves) are always on duty as well. 80% of their current staff have been with them since day one.  We need to stop associating every drug-related problem in our city with ARCHES. We need to stop calling the “crisis” itself ARCHES and be intentional with our language.

2. ON THAT NOTE, LET’S GET EDUCATED!

Ready or not, opioid crisis 101 here we come…

Opiates (or opiate drugs) come from alkaloids in the opium poppy plant. These drugs are best known for their ability to relieve pain… take prescription drugs like morphine and codeine as an example. Illegal drugs like heroin fall into this category as well. 

Opioids are synthetic drugs that cause similar effects to opiates, by interacting with the same receptors in the brain and body. They are safe-ish short-term but even in the prescription context can become highly addictive because of the euphoric experience they bring. Drugs like oxycodone, fentanyl and methadone have been distributed on the streets and become grossly accessible. Not only that, but in sketchy who knows where production and distribution are coming out in crazy batches that are dangerously potent or mixed with other things, causing unexpected overdose deaths.

Every part of the country has seen an increase in the accessibility of these drugs, yet pockets of the nation seem to be dramatically devastated by the alarming augmentation in overdose deaths.

According to data from May 2019, Western Canada continues to be the most impacted. In 2018, there were 4,460 apparent opioid-related deaths across the country, a general death rate of 12 people per 100,000 population. This means about one life was lost every two hours related to opioids. In 2018, the death rate in Alberta alone was 17.3 per 100,000 population and the total number of accidental apparent opioid-related deaths was 744.

The most dense region for all this chaos? Southern Alberta. With increased usage comes increased death, and the likelihood of increased crime. Some people have been concerned with the increase of crime in Lethbridge since the opening of the SCS facility. The truth according to Statistics Canada is that Lethbridge did see an increase in crime last year. However, it’s really not an absurd jump compared to the years before the SCS site opened. It has nothing to do with the services and everything to do with drugs soothing broken hearts.

3. STOP SCRUTINIZING ARCHES.

A common thing I hear people say in their rants about how terrible ARCHES is: that they “hand out free drugs.” They don’t. They never have, and never will. Clients must bring their own drugs to the facility.  Yes, they offer needle distribution. So yes, they “hand out needles,” but they are clean and despite the impacts on the general population it is helping the ones who the program is for.

Blaming ARCHES for people’s addictions is unnecessary.

To stop bashing them doesn’t mean you have to agree with every single way they are responding to the crisis. It means that before you speak out about them, think: have I checked the facts? Is what I’m about to say true? Have I considered their perspective?

For example, they do not call EMS on a “regular basis.” They only require emergency medical services for 15% of their medical emergencies. Their hard-working staff are able to divert the other 85% from EMS, which means their work is bringing a decrease to the amount of money taxpayers give for paramedics to deal with overdoses.

Then there’s the banter about “new problems” that have arisen since SCS have become part of our community. Well yes, of course. There are always implications and impacts in change. It sucks for the people who care so much about what people look and smell like in order to feel safe that there is more foot traffic by a select few businesses. I’m sorry for you But mostly sorry that you’re missing out on relationship with people who don’t smell as nice as you. They have taught me more about Jesus than any preacher ever did.

For the record, 559 people died as a result of opioid overdoses in Alberta (2016) and of these deaths, 363 were attributed to fentanyl or carfentanyl, which are often laced into other drugs. 

The SCS facility opened to address this, and they are. Business owners, yes I’m sorry that this has impacted you cause of the shenanigans that happen when people are high. You’re allowed to be frustrated. And we’re simultaneously allowed to celebrate the fact that ARCHES has responded to 2531 medical emergencies at the facility since opening, preventing many OD deaths.

Without a safer alternative, people are injecting in public, commonly under the Highway 3 overpass along Stafford Drive, in the bushes by the homeless shelter, in back alleys, behind dumpsters, and in public washrooms. In 2016’s edition of the Outreach and Harm Reduction Evaluation that ARCHES conducted, 75% of drug users reported that they had injected in public during the previous six months. Most of this is being diverted now as well. Thank you ARCHES!

Oh and Lethbridge? ARCHES has enough on their hands, serving the never-ending influx of people, so let’s stop making their lives more miserable.

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GRAPHIC CREDITED TO THE TORONTO STAR

4. CONSIDER OUR HISTORY.

Addiction problems aren’t new to the city.

Back to the beginnings of Lethbridge addictions were there. The coal town was home to many workers who came to join the profitable business. Where coal fails, and eventual economic repression, pain comes. Hardship strikes. And alcohol soothes.

In the Toronto Star article that inspired this whole post Mayor Chris Spearman reminds us that “we’ve always had problems with poverty, we’ve always had problems with addiction. We’ve been repeating this cycle for years now.”

Another major factor is the large number of hurting indigenous peoples that live near Lethbridge and have little to no help that they need. We are the closest city for a large population of people who are part of one of Canada’s largest tribes.

As sick as it makes me feel to admit, I knew nothing about the concerning history of indigenous peoples in Canada until I was 19 years old! No wonder their deep-seeded pain that’s passed down from generations cuts hard, and with tremendous loss comes tremendous need to manage pain.

It’s completely understandable. And choosing understanding, exploring meaning and history, they both pave ways for us to engage in what’s happening today.

5. CHOOSE TO HONOUR.

The reality is no one wakes up one day and says, “I’m bored. I’m going to be a drug addict.” 

The first people we need to honour in all of this is the ones who are accessing services, the ones who are suffocating in addiction’s grip. Sit with them. Ask them their story. Be open to helping them with practical needs, like gas cards to get back to the reserve, the use of a cell phone, a hot drink or a burger combo from A&W. 

Sure, there’s the increased foot traffic from people who “look a little rough” in the east part of downtown. Yes, when people are high they do stupid things. Is that reason to get mad at the people who are actually laying down their lives to be with the ones you think are too smelly to sit with?

I personally want to honour those who are working around the clock (and have been for years) to love on the frontlines. With all all the new epidemics that addiction brings to the social sphere, age-old organizations with decades of relationship building are not often applauded, but rather insulted. Through all the recent shenanigans in Lethbridge, it’s possibly that they may get the message that we don’t notice or appreciate them. That’s not cool. We see you, we appreciate you, and with the Lord’s help, may we support what you’re doing!

I honour Stacey Bourque. She is amazing. In the face of verbal abuse and stares of disgust while she shops for groceries to support her family, she has not backed down. She is fiercely committed to the people she serves. She has lead ARCHES from a quaint support organization to an innovative team of people who are leading the way in supervised drug consumption. She has hired and trained many staff and responded to the community’s cries for assessment by sending more outreach teams, implementing more security, and being open to public discussion. She recognizes harm reduction is not the answer to fixing addiction, but still commits her life to seeing such strategies being utilized by people who can benefit from them.

I honour Streets Alive for what they’re doing to help end the cycle for people. They are there to support those who want to be free. They are there to walk with them into freedom and victory. They are there to mentor, support, provide, and genuinely love people. Thank you for all you do. Ken, Julie, Cam, Shawna, and everyone else… you guys inspire me and I’m so thankful for your dedication to being the hands and feet of Christ.

I honour the group of Christians who are praying for this intentionally and developing practical strategies to help implement detox and rehabilitation services.

I honour the YWCA. Your leadership and vigour are needed. The way you step in for women, protect them, advocate for them, it’s amazing. Thank you for taking education and prevention seriously and leading the way in our community.

I honour Youth One for providing a safe-space for young people to build connection and experience community. Thank you for being a place for people to belong and for laying down your lives to love youth. This is an incredible prevention tactic whether you’re meaning for it to be or not.

I honour the soup kitchen and all those who serve there. To Bill Ginther and his teams, thank you. Meeting the practical needs of those who’d otherwise go hungry is a space that I’m glad is being filled. Your servant-hearted culture speaks volumes and the opportunity you provide for privileged citizens to connect with people they’d otherwise never meet is probably my  favourite thing about you.

I honour the shelter. I know it’s busy. I know it’s hard. I know you’re hearing that you’re not enough. Still, thank you. You are there. You are helping. 

I honour CMHA and their staff for committing themselves to people living with mental illness. Thank you for having supportive housing and for making sure there are staff 24/7…. Alberta Health Services for their programs and services….  Lethbridge Police Service for supporting ARCHES and responding promptly to incidents across the city involving overdoses, crime, and more.

And finally I honour my pals in the news world. I know how hard it can be. Don’t read the comments. Tell the truth. You are doing a great thing.

6. LET’S TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT OURSELVES.

You and I may not be the typical “addict” but we 100% identify beneath the facades. You and I are human beings who have experienced hurt and turned to substances and screens to quell the loneliness, numb the pain and hide from the glimmering hope and promise of healing.  Let’s be honest about that.

My supervised consumption site has often been the kitchen table. What about yours? The couch for Netflix? Your “office” for porn.

Being honest not only with our own pain but also our own response to current affairs.

For example, I’ll admit that I make conclusions and judge in certain areas in my life. We all do.

Yet it’s this exact close-mindedness that robs us of the blessings that come with stepping past comfort. Our conclusiveness keeps us on one side and them on the other. The last thing that people experiencing the heart-shattering impacts of addiction need is to be patronized.

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Finally, I feel this responsibility to apologize on behalf of the Church in our city and beyond - the parts of us who have been closed off to compassion. I’m sorry on behalf of all Christians who have spoken malicious words against any harm reduction agency. I’m sorry for our all-or-nothing-ness that succumbs us to judgement and passivity.


I admit that I too have been passive. I long to be personally re-awakened to Jesus in my street family. I’ve become so comfortable in my own little world. I’ve become so numb to my own pain that I cannot seem to empathize to the degree in which I truly can. I long to be moved with compassion again and get to know the people who don’t fit into my plans. I long to be purged of my judgements and commitments to convenience and comfort.

I believe that as we begin to confess where we’re really at with all this, compassion can begin to spring up. When we can acknowledge that we suck at loving people, and we have done a terrible job at being practically helpful, we can begin to change. When we call laziness what it is, we are energized to research.

Addictions steal, kill and destroy. Does that make you angry? Where can you use your anger to advocate? Where can you apply your concern and partner with existing initiatives? Where must you repent of judgement and laziness, and where do you feel energized to learn more?  What parts of this conversation inspire open-mindedness and where do you find yourself most passionately opinionated? 

Your response to injustice is in your court. 

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