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Nanaimo council takes no action on pop-up consumption site at city hall

A warning sign outside of Nanaimo city hall. - News Bulletin File
A warning sign outside of Nanaimo city hall.
— image credit: News Bulletin File

Nanaimo council took no action Monday to shut down an unauthorized supervised consumption site in the city hall parking lot, but one councillor took exception to the city’s response to the situation, calling it an “overreaction” to safety issues.

City manager Tracy Samra, however, said she didn’t have the choice to do nothing.

Council opted at its public meeting Monday to see no further action taken by staff on the pop-up facility until Island Health establishes an overdose prevention site, rather than having the operation removed or supporting it in principle – a move that would have involved permits and a licence agreement all subject to authorization of the site by Island Health.

Council also agreed to send the issue of safe consumption and overdose prevention service to its public safety committee and support in principle Island Health’s temporary overdose prevention service, where people at risk of an overdose can be monitored and intervention is on hand.

The decision comes two weeks after a makeshift supervised consumption site opened in the city hall parking lot, allowing people to use drugs under the watch of volunteers. It prompted the temporary shut down of city hall and the service and resource centre over safety concerns. City administration has also hired two security guards to the tune of $357 daily, put up a portable toilet next to the site, installed signage with warnings to participants, sought legal counsel and sent the operators a letter requesting they move, a city report shows.

Councillors Jim Kipp and Gord Fuller, both involved with the site, moved and seconded the motion for staff members to take no more action. Kipp said people in the community took it upon themselves for a critical crisis management situation to provide a peaceful protest in a facility, for the first few days city staff didn’t visit or talk to them and as a key person he wasn’t asked to close it down. He also called security a deterrent to people and that it’s an embarrassing situation for them and that the spending needs to stop.

“Staff have completed their due diligence, we’ve had that in a report from our legal opinion and we’ve had a second one from the doctor standing in front of us,” Kipp said, referring to Dr. Paul Hasselback, Island Health’s medical health for central Vancouver Island.

Fuller sees security as inflaming the misconception of “these people” causing problems, and that they’ve been going to the cliff behind the consumption site for decades. He said the site causes no harm where it is and that there’s been 140 consumptions to date, or times drugs were used, and not one overdose, saying “that is phenomenal.”

In a later update Monday evening, Fuller reported a possible overdose, but that has not been confirmed.

He said as long as there’s someone there with them, they have a chance.

“I’m hearing people say we are enabling, well you know what? We are enabling. We are enabling people that are incapable of making a choice now to potentially make that choice in the future,” Fuller said. “I am an example of what can happen through that. I used and abused every substance known to humanity for over 20 years. Look at me now.”

Coun. Wendy Pratt said it didn’t feel wrong at this point to leave the site where it is, but took exception to the response of the city, which she called an overreaction to the safety issues and one that sent the wrong message to the community.

“If we are saying as the City of Nanaimo that it is not safe to have this site near us and yet we are going to be asking other people to have a site near them, that gives the wrong message,” she said.

Samra said by putting the pop up site on city property it put the focus on the City of Nanaimo and the city’s obligations.

“By putting it on city hall property and not being available to provide direction to city staff, who have no authority to approve either the location of it there or its operations, we’ve put the discourse on the city and made the city responsible for this instead of who is really responsible for it – VIHA,” she said.

Staff chose the least intrusive recommendations from legal counsel because the city manager cannot do nothing, according to Samra, who said she had to take steps to minimize risk of an “unsanctioned, unauthorized, unregulated” pop-up site. She also said, in regards to signage and security, there is no intention to fear monger, stigmatize or lay blame.

Mayor Bill McKay and Coun. Ian Thorpe opposed the motion around action. Coun. Diane Brennan was absent.

Thorpe said he had no doubt the intention of the people involved in the pop-up site are great and have drawn attention to a very serious problem but he couldn’t support the motion because the pop-up site is unauthorized, unregulated and federally, it’s illegal.

“My support involves working with VIHA to ensure there are long term solutions and yes I know that takes time but to me it has to be something which involves integrated services, a site that has professional providers, professional counsellors, health service advice, possibly housing advice to help people make an attempt to break out of the addiction cycle and not simply a place they can come and have an injection,” he said.

Island Health plans to open an overdose prevention site at 526 Wentworth St., where it already offers services. The site will open in two weeks optimistically, and six weeks at worst, according to Hasselback.

Hasselback has previously visited the unauthorized site, and Island Health will ensure ongoing visitation and provision of supplies required until a longer-term solution is found. The measure isn't sanctioning the site but to reduce the risk to users, volunteers and the landowner, Hasselback said to council.

“It’s probably better that we have a pop-up than no service,” Hasselback said.“A clear message we have sent to users for two and a half years now is don’t use alone and here’s an environment where not only are they not using alone but they are using where there’s somebody who is appropriately trained if there is an adverse event that occurs.”

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