They’re a sanctuary.
They’re a scar.
They’re saving lives.
They’re ruining communities.
The measure of a supervised consumption site can depend on whom you ask.
It’s been 17 years since Canada got its first site, a controversial spot in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside known as Insite — but the debate rages on.
Despite a wave of site approvals across the country over the past three years, many politicians remain wary of governments helping people do illegal drugs. Last March, the Ontario government said it would only approve 15 sites, throwing some that were already operating into limbo.
Now Alberta may be getting cold feet. Last year, a provincial committee held town hall meetings with a strict mandate to look exclusively at the impact of the sites on their communities. There has been much criticism on that front, from neighbouring businesses and others. Observers said what was missing from that formal mandate, though, was talk of how the sites benefit those who use them. The committee’s report is now expected to drive the government’s looming next steps, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has said some sites may be closed or moved.
The Star spoke to five people who have used supervised consumption sites, asking what brought them to the facilities. In many ways, their futures remain an open question.
These are their stories.
When life spirals, the sites teach people ‘how to avoid dying’ — Jayden Skinner
Jayden Skinner’s first real taste of fentanyl was out of desperation.
It was 2017 and Skinner, then 18, was sprawled in their Vancouver bedroom, knocked flat by back problems. A friend asked if they wanted the pain to go away.
“He kneeled in front of me, and I had the straw in my mouth, and he held a piece of foil up to the straw, and he lit it. He just gave me tiny little doses until it was the second or third one that brought me out of it,” Skinner said. “I wasn’t in pain anymore.”
The friend made Skinner promise to never do it again, to never get addicted — a pledge they tried to keep. But once the fentanyl hit their bloodstream there was no going back.
Skinner, who uses they/their pronouns, is now clean at age 21, but still remembers how quickly fentanyl pulled them under. That first hit was for pain, the second, because they wanted it — by the third hit, they were using to fight back withdrawal.
Before that first hit, the Medicine Hat native was already well acquainted with drugs, which were a way to escape a turbulent home life complicated by diagnoses of autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). At age 16, Skinner left home. For the next nine months, their life spiralled out of control and drugs — including weed, cocaine, ecstasy and finally meth — were along for the ride.
“I come from a pretty well-to-do family,” they said, sounding slightly surprised at the way things unfolded, even a couple years later. “I had a career plan. I was going to be a mechanic.”
In many ways Skinner’s story speaks to the challenges many people who use drugs are facing. Experts say that childhood trauma and unstable families can contribute to drug use. In 2017, Alberta Health Services looked at all the people who died from an overdose in the province and found a large majority had a psychiatric condition, or a diagnosed anxiety or mood disorder like depression.
Eventually, drugs became an escape for Skinner; a way to “hit the f— it switch” after one too many run ins with family.
When the friend who introduced Skinner to fentanyl left town, the urge to inject drugs stayed and they were afraid to go it alone. “He was kind of my safety blanket … the one who was the experienced user,” Skinner said. “He can keep me from overdosing, he can keep me alive.”
So they turned to Insite, Vancouver’s long-running supervised consumption site. It was a lousy feeling to have to be there, but during one of their first visits, a nurse showed Skinner how to inject without going too deep or damaging a vein.
“It’s not just a place to get high. They teach you how to avoid dying, essentially.”
Skinner is now back in Medicine Hat, working toward being independent, something they don’t think would be possible without the sites.
“I do not have a single collapsed vein despite doing two or three shots minimum a day. I have never had an abscess because I had access to these clean needles,” they said. “I have four healthy, scar-free limbs.”
Without these sites ‘I’d be six feet underground’ — Codey Gibbons
Codey Gibbons wonders if his friend Stacy would still be with him if she hadn’t decided to use alone.
The 39-year-old Edmontonian was in a budding relationship with the young woman when he says she died of an overdose in a bathroom stall at a social service agency in the inner city. The two would use methamphetamine intravenously together, but on that day, Stacy was using on her own.
“It was just that one time, ‘Oh, I’d rather use alone …’ ” Gibbons recalled.
Since Stacy’s death, Gibbons’s use has increased — he says he sometimes spends hundreds on meth in a day. But her death has also put into perspective the importance of supervised consumption sites. He tries to visit them whenever he can and has used the services at Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Boyle Street Community Services and at the George Spady Centre.
“If we didn’t have these sites out in Edmonton or in Calgary … you know how many more people would be dead?
“I’d be six feet underground,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons’ speech comes in short, rapid bursts — seemingly reflecting the speed of his thoughts. His face is emaciated, his bright blue eyes projecting a steely gaze.
Most of his life has been marred by substance use disorder. Born in Calgary, his childhood was turbulent. He was taken from his home at age one and lived in foster care until he was adopted at seven. He inhaled his first hit of crack cocaine at age eight when an older boy introduced it to him at school. By 13, he was smoking it every day.
He says drugs help him cope with painful memories and experiences. “I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been raped in my life. So I don’t want to deal with that pain,” Gibbons told the Star. “It’s hard for me to talk about it to other people.”
He stayed sober for four and a half years while working as a flight attendant in his mid-20s. But during a 16-hour layover in Vancouver, he had his first taste of meth. “I went back for more and more,” Gibbons recalled.
He’s been using ever since and 10 years later, finds himself stuck in a cycle of addiction. He says he doesn’t have much hope for recovery, but wants to keep trying for the sake of his three kids and his adopted parents, who he’s still in touch with.
“Am I really scared? Yes, for my kids to not have their father, or my mother and my father going to a funeral because their son died. Because of what he did for his drug.”
Through the supervised consumption site at the George Spady Centre, Gibbons says he’s connected with addiction treatment services such as detox centres, mental health counselling and housing. He completed a seven-day detox program at the centre, then spent three or four days in treatment at a residential facility called Recovery Acres.
He said it was a good program, but he had a hard time keeping up with the material because of his disabilities, including Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Now he’s trying another avenue — he’s registered with the Addiction Recovery Centre in Edmonton, a government-run recovery centre that offers referrals, assessments and introductions to self-help groups as well as detox treatment.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve tried, but I keep on coming back.”
The sites helped these veteran users ‘rise up from the gutter’ — Jade Harris and Kodi Rajchevich
In the basement of her home in downtown Edmonton, Jade Harris keeps a heavy, grey tool box, fastened with lock and key, tucked under her couch. Inside are needles, tourniquets, alcohol prep pads and other supplies for injecting drugs.
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She pulls out a small bottle of sterile water, which she estimates to be about nine years old. It’s used for cooking opioids into an injectable liquid.
“They don’t make these anymore, it’s like an artifact now,” she says, explaining that the new ones are single-use to prevent sharing and the spread of diseases.
To her, it’s a symbol of how harm reduction has gained more acceptance, and how long she’s used opioids — and survived.
She’s alarmed to hear the provincial government is considering moving or closing supervised consumption sites in Alberta, which she says save lives.
Harris, 26, works as a biller in the health-care industry. She no longer uses opioids recreationally, but did for close to 10 years. She still uses crystal meth occasionally and has been using methadone as a treatment for about five years.
Having lived on the streets of Vancouver in her teens while using heroin, Harris credits supervised consumption sites for connecting her to methadone clinics, addiction treatment services and providing her with safe supplies.
“I definitely would have some kind of communicable disease right now, if they were not a thing when I was young,” Harris said.
Seated next to her is her fiancé, Kodi Rajchevich, wearing a leather jacket affixed with punk band patches and a hat that says “Gutter Born.”
“I feel like I was born in the gutter and now I’m rising up from the gutter,” says Rajchevich, 28.
He says he started using opioid painkillers in his teens. Over the years he moved on to morphine, OxyContin and hydromorphone.
Rajchevich nurses a 700-millimetre bottle of scotch as he speaks about his struggles with opioids. He’s still an alcoholic, but has quit recreational opioids and is now on methadone treatment.
He’s currently on disability but was a heavy equipment operator for years. Having been without stable housing on and off for years, he credits the services at the supervised consumption site with connecting him to mental health counselling, acquiring identification and keeping him disease-free.
“Because of these facilities I’m in, I’m seeing the right people that are helping me, because I am a contributing member of society and I’m a level-headed man,” he said. “But I’m also a sick man.”
The couple has actually used supervised consumption sites together, as recently as two months ago, when consuming meth. Harris said it’s not the most romantic setting.
“It’s very impersonal in there,” she said. “You just go in, each go your separate ways, do your stuff, meet up outside.”
One of the most valuable aspects of using at a supervised consumption site is the readiness of information for addiction treatment and the compassion from nurses and staff toward people who use drugs, Harris added.
“Some of these people just need to be asked how they’re doing, you know?” she said. “You got to keep people alive for one more day so they can decide to get clean on their own.”
The sites were there when he ‘got tired of being the evil in everybody’s story’ — Ryan Stirling
It was a cold day in November when Ryan Stirling woke up in a Calgary hospital bed and knew in his heart he was done with drugs.
Speaking about three months later, Stirling rarely stops moving — he speaks with his hands, shifts in his seat and taps his knee. But when talking about his recovery he goes still, clasps his hands in front of him, and leans forward.
“You just wake up and you see a light. It’s something that you have to experience to understand,” Stirling said. “I was just tired of being the evil in everybody’s story.”
That morning was his ninth overdose in three months. He remembers being downtown, then nothing until waking up in the hospital, where doctors told him he was unresponsive when he arrived. That afternoon he headed to his 11th stay in treatment for addiction.
But Stirling, 38, is determined that this time will be different, and has turned the “hustle” he used on the streets, selling drugs and in and out of housing — to getting back in track.
Since then he’s gone through detox and found a new place to live with his partner. Twice a day he puts 18 Suboxone tablets under his tongue — he said they “taste like lemon pledge smells” — to control the cravings.
Originally from Winnipeg, Stirling got into drugs as a young teen. He remembers a time when he played hockey and liked video games, but said his addiction stole even that.
“I went from being a drug dealer, to being my own best customer, to being an absolute junkie.”
He left Winnipeg for Calgary over a decade ago. It was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to outrun addiction for good. His first relapse was triggered by his mother’s death. One time, he stayed clean for five years.
He began using Calgary’s supervised consumption site at the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre in 2017. Unable to quit entirely, he wanted to at least consume safely. A friend tried to help him inject, but missed the vein a couple of times. So staff at the site talked Stirling through it.
“It saved my life,” he said. “I knew that if I was going to use drugs that there would be someone there to see I didn’t die.”
More than that, he said, they treated him like a person when he stopped by every couple of weeks.
“You know when someone feels safe they open up a little bit more? I just, I felt that I was like a little bit taller than I was before, you know?” he said. “You don’t feel the love on the streets.”
Now, he wants to give that love back, and recently started classes to become an addiction services and community health representative. He hopes to go back to detox — this time, as an employee.
“Somebody has a plan for me so I’m going to start listening to it,” he said. “My mom has got to be up there, trying to kick me in the pants … I’ve got a shot now at life.”