Opioid overdoses remain a significant health crisis not just in the US but also Canada. An estimated 32,630 Canadians died from an apparent opioid-related overdose between 2016 and 2022, with the number of deaths accelerating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those fatalities occurred in the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. In western Alberta, near the Canadian Rockies, sits Banff, a resort town of nearly 8,500 residents and an internationally known outdoor sports destination. Banff is also known for its nightlife, which has exacerbated its opioid problem.
To help tackle the issue, Jessia Arsenio, access and inclusion library assistant at Banff Public Library (BPL), created an innovative program to offer test strips for fentanyl—a potent synthetic opioid and major contributor to overdoses—available to library visitors. Information from the test strips can reduce a person’s risk of overdose.
In August 2020, a few months into the pandemic, Canada’s government discontinued funding for a supervised drug-consumption site in Lethbridge, Alberta, about 200 miles away from Banff. Designed to provide a safe space and harm-reduction services, it was the busiest site of its kind in North America before closing its doors.
When I read about the closure, I was motivated to do something. The opioid overdose crisis continues to rage, and every week it feels like another friend or neighbor endures the pangs of loss.
I left Banff to volunteer with the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society, a grassroots group formed to fill the void with street-level mitigation efforts and outreach.
When I returned to Banff in spring 2021, I wondered what could be done in our town. Many people come here to unwind and experience adventure, which sometimes includes risk-seeking behavior like frequent substance use, especially in the nightlife scene. And unfortunately, adulterants like fentanyl have made their way into people’s party favors. A tiny amount of the opioid—as little as two grains of salt—is enough to be fatal.
The opioid overdose crisis continues to rage, and every week it feels like another friend or neighbor endures the pangs of loss.
With knowledge from my outreach work in Lethbridge, I took to Banff’s streets on my bike with the necessary tools: naloxone (a medication that reverses the effects of opioid overdose by temporarily preventing opioids from binding to receptors in the brain), a Bluetooth speaker to play music, and phone chargers. In between street performances, I checked that revelers weren’t having adverse drug reactions, made sure they got home safe, and connected them with resources such as victim services and the YWCA, as well as mental health and addiction services.
I began working at BPL in summer 2022. But continuing nightlife outreach while working full time during the day wore on me. Our librarian was supportive of my moonlighting as a harm-reduction crusader, but we both knew I needed to transition toward something sustainable. The result? BPL decided to offer fentanyl testing strips at the library as a pilot program.
These test strips, which are dipped into drug residue dissolved in water, can determine within minutes whether the solution contains fentanyl.
We reached out to a local primary care network, and providers there enthusiastically offered to help distribute test kits to pharmacies and clinics around the region. I purchased 500 test strips for $650, and we packaged them with sexual health information packets, a handout on safer snorting, and a list of contacts for mental health resources. Our library made them available to patrons and other visitors in the Little Free Pantry inside BPL.
We ran through our initial supply in less than a month. The strength of the pilot program was enough to inspire community organizations in British Columbia, Ontario, and elsewhere in Alberta to ask how they could provide their own test strips.
BPL recently received another 500 test strips from a Calgary-based harm-reduction organization. And in late March, we received a grant of $2,500 Canadian ($1,850 US) from a local community foundation to continue offering resources throughout the year.
Initially, there was pushback. Some community members thought providing fentanyl test strips would enable substance use. But the pushback didn’t persist. On a particularly cold February morning, a man stopped me on the street nearly in tears. Between chattering teeth, he thanked me, explaining that he had lost friends to fentanyl. Before parting, we said, nearly in unison, that if those strips prevent even one person overdosing, it has been worth it.
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