News / Calgary

Half a million needles handed out as harm reduction program grows in Calgary

Nearly half a million needles were handed out in Calgary last year as uptake of safe-injection services offered through Alberta Health Services’ Safeworks program continues to rise.

According to AHS data provided to Metro, 499,086 needles were distributed through the harm-reduction program in Calgary last year, an increase of roughly 27 per cent from the 390,285 handed out in 2011.

Debbie Newman, executive director with the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre, which offers a needle-exchange program to its clients through Safeworks, said the increase is encouraging, on the whole.

“The fact that they see more needle users, that’s not necessarily a good thing,” she said. “But the fact that they are reaching out to people at Alberta Health Services is a positive thing in my mind.”

Newman said the needle exchange offers a chance for intravenous drug users to engage with social-service providers and build relationships — and trust — with people who can help connect them with health care and addictions treatment.

“Harm reduction goes much further than just handing out a needle,” she stressed. “It’s promoting safe practices, it’s talking about interventions where you can try to get people to reduce needle usage, go into treatment (or) refer to them other services that may be available.”

Newman said drug suppliers have been producing larger volumes of narcotics for less cost and making the substances more easily accessible to marginalized people.

Calgary police saw heroin charges increase by 26 per cent last year as compared to 2013, a change they attributed to increased enforcement.

While the number of needles distributed through Safeworks has risen, the number of syringes collected by the Calgary Fire Department through its Safe Streets deposit boxes has dropped by almost 40 per cent since 2006.

Fire department spokeswoman Carol Henke said the needle-collection program will continue, but the lower numbers they're seeing may free up resources for other tasks.

“Where it really can affect our front-line service to Calgarians is when less needles wind up on the streets, in parking lots, in playgrounds (and) in school yards,” she said.

“We get called through 911 or through the non-emergency line to go and retrieve those safely so that they aren’t putting Calgarians at risk,” Henke added. “The less calls like that that we get, that frees up our front-line services for our high-priority work.”

Since 2011, the AHS Safeworks Harm Reduction Program has distributed more than 1.8 million needles.

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