A Red Deer based harm reduction organization visited the Flipside Youth Centre recently where they gave a presentation on current drug trends in Central Alberta and harm reduction strategies.
Turning Point, formerly the Central Alberta AIDS Network Society, serves an area stretching from Rocky Mountain House to Drumheller.
The community based harm reduction organization, led by executive director, Jennifer Vanderschaeghe began a number of years ago as a means of supporting those living with HIV. Today, Turning Point has over 579 clients and a number of programs aimed at reducing the harm associated with drug use, supporting street involved individuals and preventing the spread of various sexual transmitted infections such as AIDS/HIV and HepatitisC.
The organization works actively with drug users providing supplies for safer sex, safer inhalation, safer injection and also acts as a resource centre to direct clients to other organizations. Currently Turning Point sees over 43,000 safe injection supplies such as clean syringes leaving their building each month.
“Our history has been around HIV but who we have grown into is about prevention of all sexually transmitted infections and hepatitis C – our harm reduction work has really become our focus,” said Vanderschaeghe. “What we try to do is connect with people where they are at while they are currently using drugs. We will never say to some one that they should stop doing drugs.”
During the presentation at the Flipside Youth Centre, she explained the organization prefers a more open and non-judgmental approach when interacting with their clients.
“Our job is to build relationships and create credibility and we do that by being really non-judgmental and accessible,” she explained. “The population we work with and work with a lot are people who are using drugs so we’re not trying to prevent people from doing drugs,specifically injecting drugs or smoking them.”
In light of recent events throughout the province including a high volume of Fentanyl and W-18 related overdoses, the organization has visited around 12 rural locations with their presentation detailing harm reduction methods associated with overdose.
Accompanying Vandershaege was registered nurse and Turning Point Overdose Prevention Lead, Sarah Fleck.
Fleck detailed the work they are doing to prevent Fentanyl and W-18 related overdoses.
She explained current trends in drug use in Central Alberta see the two drugs popping up more and more frequently. Fentanyl, originally only used as a prescription pain killer 50-100 times more potent that heroine, has found it’s way to the streets of Central Alberta via the Internet.
Easily ordered through online pharmacies, the drug has rampaged the lives of opiate users across the province. Drug users often believe they are taking heroine, Oxycotin or morphine and will inject or ingest the same amount they usually would – only to realize the drug they are taking is the potent Fentanyl, resulting in overdose.
Due to the cheap manufacturing and distributing costs of Fentanyl, the drug is often cheaper, with dealers passing the drug off as more common drugs such as heroine.
“Those dying from Fentanyl pass very quickly, normally a heroine overdose sees users slowly slipping into an overdose,” explained Fleck. “Those overdosing on Fentanyl are dying with needles still in their arm.”
Recently the province and Alberta Health Services began an initiative aimed at reducing Fentanyl related overdoses in the form of take homeNaloxone kits. Previously the opioid overdose prevention drug required a medical professional prescription, however the drug is now available to anyone including family members of opiate users.
“We want to have these conversations around overdose prevention with not only our clients but communities across the province,” said Fleck. “We need to create awareness around these issues to help support individuals and allow them to access the help they need.”
To date Turning Point has handed out over 410 Naloxone kits saving 105 lives who otherwise may have succumb to their overdose. Naloxone is administered via injection and requires some one else to give you the shot if you are overdosing. Turning Point stresses the idea of never using alone for this reason.
Fleck also touched on another drug trend the organization is seeing frequently among their clients, W-18.
W-18 is a drug created in the mid 80’s at the University of Alberta as part of a series of 30 different types of painkillers. Fleck explained that because W-18 reacted so strongly on the mice they were testing it never made it to human trials because it was deemed too clinically strong. Once the patent ran out in recent years, it was recreated by street chemists and has since hit the streets.
“W-18 is a drug no one knows a lot about because it never made it to human trials,” explained Fleck, adding officials believe the drug to be 1000times greater in strength than Fentanyl. “We don’t know if it’s an opiate or what it will react with. The fear with this drug is a lack of knowledge.”
Currently the organization has observed W-18 being distributed in Red Deer in the form of pills, with Fleck explaining it is similar in a sense toFentanyl with drug dealers passing the product off as other more commonly requested drugs.
W-18 has led to hundreds of deaths across Canada, with law enforcement failing to lay charges against those carrying, manufacturing or distributing the drug, as there are no laws currently associated with the drug.
When it comes to helping those around you, Vanderschaeghe finished the presentation by saying the best thing you can do as a parent or some one who works with youth is to build a relationship that will allow you to have conversations.
“Building that relationships means they will talk to you about what they are facing honestly,” she explained. “If they won’t talk to you honestly you have some time and energy to spend on them trusting you. At the end of the day parents are people working with youth need to be able to build that relationship.”
She advised those in attendance to be honest and open with young people and instead be that safe contact and safe space for them to open up and never judge them.