Lethbridge SCS

Debunked: 9 myths about the Lethbridge supervised consumption site

Here are the 9 myths people often use when opposing the supervised consumption site and why exactly they’re just myths.

Lethbridge residents sure have had a lot to say regarding drugs, crime, and violence recently, Even though the drug crisis has been in this city for nearly 5 years, no one was discussing it until the supervised consumption site opened a year and a half ago.

Even though crime was increasing and public drug usage was on the rise, it wasn’t until the SCS was announced that people started rallying around how terrible the city had become.

I’ve read hundreds—if not thousands— of comments from people who are opposed to the SCS. That opposition varies by degrees, but it often comes down to common points.

Here are the 9 myths people often use when opposing the supervised consumption site and why exactly they’re just myths.

1. We need to shut it down

Shutting down the SCS will not improve any metric these opponents are worried about. It won’t reduce crime, it won’t reduce drug usage, and it won’t get people off their addiction.

The crime, drug usage, and addiction exist independent of the SCS. They were here before the SCS, and they will be here if the SCS shuts down. Plus drug-related deaths would increase.

2. It’s not working.

It most definitely is working. The SCS was designed to reduce harm, specifically, to prevent deaths and reduce the risk of infection. The staff at the SCS have reversed thousands of overdoses in the last year and a half, and none of them have resulted in deaths.

Over a quarter of a million instances of drug use has occurred in the SCS since it opened. That’s a quarter of a million incidents that didn’t happen in public, thereby reducing the net amount of drug debris in public.

3. I support the SCS, but it needs to be in a different location.

Its location was chosen because of the close proximity to the highest concentration of public drug use. Placing it close to that concentration would increase the effectiveness of the facility.

Moving it away from that concentration would reduce usage, and all the activity people claim is happening around the SCS would still be there. It may even increase.

And even so, where would you put it? No one wants it in their neighbourhood, and if you put it out in the middle of nowhere, it most definitely won’t be used.

4. SCS has caused crime to go up.

Crime has not gone up because of the SCS. The drug crisis arrived in Lethbridge nearly 5 years ago. The crime associated with increased drug activity came with it.

Because this myth seems to be the most prevalent, I’m going to spend the most time on it. I have three datasets I’ll discuss regarding crime in Lethbridge over the last two yeas.

First let’s take the crime severity index that everyone loves to cite.

According to Statistics Canada, Lethbridge had the highest CSI last year of all the metropolitan areas in the country. Last year was also the year the SCS opened, and, of course, people are claiming they have causal connection.

Lethbridge also had the highest crime rate in the country in 2018, which makes sense since the crime rate measures crime volume and CSI measures both volume and severity. If CSI goes up, so should the crime rate. But we’ll get to that in a second.

While the CSI increased for Lethbridge in 2018, it also increased in 2017. In fact, it has increased every year for the last 5 years. However, the rate at which it increased has not been consistent.

We see here that while the CSI did increase in 2018, the rate it increased was lower than most of the other years within the last 5 years. In fact, the rate of increase in the 2014 CSI was nearly 50% higher than it was in 2018.

Let’s say that again: the CSI rate of increase was nearly 50% lower the year the SCS opened than it was during the same period 5 years before it opened.

I mean, one could even argue that the SCS opening reduced the CSI rate increase. One may not be correct, but one could argue that; it would be an easy assumption to make.

Second, this image is one someone posted in reply to a comment I left on someone else’s post. They provided little context to why they picked that map and those time ranges, but I assume it’s to show that crimes has gone up since the local supervised consumption site opened. It was created using screenshots of the LPS Crime Mapping tool.

The image is a bit problematic in that it not only includes the Upper East Side, but that it includes Downtown, as well as parts of the London Road and Senator Buchanan neighbourhoods. The area covered in the map contains the densest population in the city. As I pointed out in another post from earlier in the week, crime in the Lethbridge area has gone up (and has been rising since before the SCS opened), so it makes sense that the most densely populated area in the city would also see an increase in crime.

If that image suggests that the SCS is the cause of the increase in crime because the January before the SCS opened is lower than the January after the SCS opened, then I wondered what the amounts were for multiple months. Which brings me to my next image.

I decided to chart the total number of incidents for every month going back as far as I can. Unfortunately, the tool has no data older than August 2017 and is missing data for November and December of 2017. The last half of 2017 appeared to be trending down, so I will assume that the missing months were on that trend. That’s an assumption I’m making though, based on that trend, and the fact that the last half of 2018 also trended down.

What we can see is that crime does indeed seem to increase after the SCS opened. August through October 2017 both seem lower than the same period in 2018. January through February 2018 seem lower than the same period in 2019.

But then the data does something interesting starting in March 2019. In March 2018, the total number or incidents reported in this area was 393; the total in March 2019 was 396. That’s roughly the same amount, and it’s the first time in over a year that the data in the second half is not higher than the first half. I mean, it’s technically higher, but by only 3 incidents. That’s less than 1 more per week.

Then in April 2019, the number of incidents drops compared to 2018. And it keeps dropping. For each of the last 4 months, the total number of incidents reported for this area have been lower than the same months in 2018.

If the SCS is the cause of the increase in crime in Lethbridge, why is the crime in the area around the SCS dropping?

Third, remember how last month, the local media was whipping everyone into a frenzy because of the 2018 crime severity index results showing Lethbridge had the highest CSI? I thought I’d use the LPS’s crime mapping tool to see what crime is like in Lethbridge.

This image illustrates the total incidents reported by LPS for every month starting in August 2017. These are citywide results. And while crime did seem to rise in the last part of 2018 compared to 2017, crime has been actually lower every month of 2019 starting in February, compared to the same months in 2018.

So crime is going down in Lethbridge, not up?

The funny thing is that any one of the reporters covering that story could have easily done this same research. It’s publicly available data. I didn’t even need to contact someone.

So, to sum up, crime was rising before the SCS opened; it came in the middle of an upward trend, one that everyone ignored until it opened, so they assumed its cause was the SCS. But the SCS isn’t a time machine.

Crime has been here for a while, long before the SCS opened. The SCS is a response to the drug crisis, not the cause of it.

5. The area around the SCS is dangerous.

The SCS is near downtown, which has the densest population in the city. And the higher the concentration of people, the higher the number of incidents of crime. Downtown has always had a higher crime rate, even before the SCS.

As I mentioned, the crime rate has increased. And if the crime rate in general goes up, so will the crime in the area with the highest concentration of crime. But it’s not the fault of the SCS. That crime would still go up even if the SCS shuts down, because the causes are independent of the SCS. The SCS is in its current location because of the drug crisis and the proximity to the highest number of users. The drug crisis and that concentration of users would still be in the area if they shut down.

Regardless, crime is up all over the city. It’s not restricted to Downtown and the Upper East Side.

6. We need more enforcement.

For every $4–5 the City of Lethbridge spends in its budget, $1 of it goes to the budget of the Lethbridge Police Service, making it the highest funded entity of all city-funded entities. We spend more on enforcement than we spend on any other entity: more than we spend on Casa, more than we spend on fire/EMS, more than we spend on parks, more than we spend on transit, more than we spend on ENMAX Centre, more than we spend on any single entity.

How much more do you think would work? Should we spend a third of our budget on enforcement, instead of a quarter or a fifth? How about half?

If enforcement worked, why are we still fighting a war on drugs, even after almost half a century? The enforcement model is a failure.

7. It’s enabling drug usage.

No, it’s not. People who are addicted to drugs are going to use drugs, regardless of whether a consumption site exists. They will find a way to get their needles if ARCHES wasn‘t handing them out, even if it meant stealing them, using makeshift ones, reusing old ones, or borrowing someone else’s.

By allowing people to use drugs at the SCS, ARCHES reduces deaths, reduces infection rates, and reduces risk to the public.

8. Addicts aren’t going to get clean unless they want to.

The SCS isn’t really designed to get people clean. Sure, they have referral services, but their purpose is to reduce harm: keep people alive and mitigate health risks.

However, yes, people won’t get clean until they’re ready. Which is why we need a consumption site; it keeps people alive until they’re ready.

9. We should have built a detox facility instead of the SCS.

We definitely need more detox services; Medicine Hat has more detox beds than we do. But it doesn’t need to be an either/or. For that matter, it shouldn’t be. We need harm reduction facilities and treatment and prevention facilities.

Lethbridge has a unique situation in that we have experienced the drug crisis as larger centres have, but we lack the resources found in larger centres. That’s why we’re struggling. We were entirely unprepared for this crisis, and our provincial governments have done very little to address it. We desperately need more resources here to properly address the effects of the crisis, but that lies in the hands of the provincial and federal governments. Complaining to city council is going to do very little. Petitioning the provincial government to shut down the SCS will do very little.

Unfortunately, governments aren’t willing to make the bold changes needed to properly address the crisis. Like decriminalizing all drug use, providing drugs free of charge, and redirecting enforcement funding to prevention and treatment programmes.

Until politicians show some real leadership, we’re going to see very little progress, and any progress we do see will be slow.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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