For those who know addiction best, safe injection site offers hope of saving lives

Lauren Charles, a peer mentor at the Gate, said she’s seen too many people die of drugs. She wants to see a safe-injection site in Prince Albert. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

Lauren Charles keeps a list of everyone she knows who’s died.

“I’m always adding onto that list,” she said. “A lot of them are drug related.”

One was her brother. He died in 2010, just after leaving the hospital.

“I guess he did a fix of heroin and they found him just slumped over,” she said.

She figures she knows about 20 people who’ve died from overdoses in Prince Albert. She remembers an older lady, an acquaintance of her still-living brother, who passed away this April.

“My brother found her,” Charles said. “She must have fallen asleep, nodded off and didn’t wake up.”

Charles kicked her drug habit years ago, after a stint in the penitentiary. But her brother still uses drugs, and she worries about what lies ahead.

“He goes and he uses by himself a lot,” she said. “And I’m thinking, what if it’s my brother that they’re going to find in an alley or a bush somewhere?”

Charles works as a peer mentor at the Gate, a drop-in centre geared toward people living with HIV. The people on her list leave her feeling angry, frustrated, because she knows the dying can be stopped. Charles is a big supporter of the plan to open a safe injection site in Prince Albert – a place where addicts can inject drugs under medical supervision.

“If (drugs) gave them a bad reaction, they wouldn’t be out in the middle of the bush somewhere by themselves and end up dying,” she said. “There would be trained professionals there who would be able to help and figure out what to do.”

Her opinion is the unanimous consensus at the Gate. Denise Desjarlais has been coming by for years. She said she tries to stay off drugs, but still has the odd slip now and then. She worries about getting stuck with a bad batch – drugs that are too strong, or contaminated with something dangerous.

“If you’re fixing all by yourself, somewhere in a back alley or behind a garbage can, and you’ve got a bad batch,” she warned, “you are dead.”

She said addicts are getting pushed further and further into the shadows. People chase them away from washrooms and other public spots, forcing them to inject where no one will ever find them.

“It’s sometimes in the open, sometimes just in unsafe places, dangerous places, filthy places,” she said.

Desjarlais said she’d use a safe injection site if one were built in Prince Albert. She’s not the only one. Pastor Linea Lanoie operates the Gate. She guesses that about 50 people would use a safe injection site in Prince Albert on a daily basis – maybe twice that many.

For more on this story, see the June 1 print or e-edition of the Daily Herald.