Red Deer remains the only city in Alberta with programs still distributing crack stems, and the numbers of safer inhalation supplies given out continues to rise.
Safer inhalation and injection supplies distributed by the Central Alberta AIDS Network Society’s (CAANS) Night Reach program reached an all time high in the month of September.
Night Reach, a mobile outreach initiative that operates in Red Deer’s downtown, City parks, and river valley areas, distributed 37,745 needles in September for safer injections and 860 stems for the safer inhalation of drugs.
Distributed by two Night Reach workers equipped with harm reduction materials, the safer injection and inhalation supplies aim to reduce the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-bourne pathogens.
Red Deer is currently the only city in Alberta that continues to give out safer inhalation supplies such as crack stems, after the province and Alberta Health decided to no longer be providing funding for safer inhalation supplies.
Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, executive director for CAANS, explained CAANS followed suit with their sister agency, Safe Works out of Calgary in 2009 and began handing out safer inhalation supplies.
“Smoking drugs is a transmission of Hepatitis C, so we wanted to specifically stop the spread of Hep,” said Vanderschaeghe. “But we also want to build relationships with the people smoking drugs so that if and when they are ready to quit, we can help them do that.”
The program was government-funded until Alberta Health decided it would no longer provide funding for safer inhalation materials.
The decision from Alberta Health to stop providing financial support for safer inhalation supplies came after issues of legality and risk management arose in Calgary.
“The government of Alberta, wanting to be diligent, made a choice to not fund the distribution of safe inhalation supplies,” explained Vanderschaeghe.
“Of course they never said to anyone that we should stop distributing stems and safer inhalation supplies, and in that they recognized the health benefits of safer inhalation.”
After the government made the decision to stop the funding, CAANS was left to make a decision as to whether or not they wanted to shut down the program.
After seeing how the lives of those using the program were impacted when Safe Works in Calgary decided to stop distributing the stems, CAANS made a decision to continue the program.
“I have great hope that our sister agencies across the province will find a way through this and continue to distribute safer inhalation supplies.
“And certainly don’t fault Alberta Health in being careful and in doing appropriate risk management because that’s what we should expect our government to do.”
CAANS decision to continue to provide stems and screens for smoking drugs means the supplies would now be funded through their personal fundraising.
Other programs such as safer injection supplies and staffing are funded through municipal funders such as the Alberta Community HIV Fund and Alberta Health.
“The great thing about stems is that they are sturdy and as long as you’re not sharing them with someone then you can use them over and over again.”
Vanderschaeghe added the main reason they distribute safer injection and inhalation supplies is because, “It engages with people who smoke drugs in a really non-judgmental way, and at least there is someone in their lives who isn’t judging them on their behavior and at the best and worst times we will continue to be there to support them.”
With numbers of materials given out for safer drug use on the rise, she said the program isn’t seeing “Significantly more users to our program, but we’re seeing people more frequently.
“The number of people we’re seeing hasn’t changed, but what we’re seeing is that the people who are using are supplies are taking more when we see them.
“This could mean a number of things, such as maybe they are using and injecting more frequently or maybe they are giving them out to their friends and family to be safe. We encourage people to redistribute because we want everyone to be safe.”