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This St. John's pub led a harm reduction blitz in the wake of overdose deaths

A St. John's pub has spearheaded a harm reduction crusade in response to a spike in overdose deaths in recent weeks, and its owners say businesses across the downtown core have enthusiastically signed on.

Owners and staff of 25 downtown bars now trained to use naloxone

A man holds a black naloxone kit at a pub table
Niall Hickey, the co-owner of the Newfoundland Embassy pub in downtown St. John's, says harm reduction is a necessary response to growing fears of overdoses and addiction. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

A St. John's pub has spearheaded a harm reduction crusade in response to a spike in overdose deaths in recent weeks, and its owners say businesses across the downtown core have enthusiastically signed on. 

The Newfoundland Embassy, located near the city's famous bar-packed George Street, asked harm reduction nurses to provide naloxone training to its staff.

But co-owner Niall Hickey said he didn't want to stop there.

The pub rallied 25 other businesses in the area, bringing the nurses on a training blitz across the downtown core over two days last week.

"It was an idea of mine that we should go around together.… A familiar face introducing people [makes it] easier to be accepting of the training," he said.

"Practically everyone was welcoming [us] with their arms, saying, 'Come on in, please, we want that training.'"

The front of a bar
Hickey says staff at 25 bars in St. John's received naloxone training and now know how to spot an overdose and use the kit to save lives. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

The Newfoundland Embassy is just across the street from a small park where 20-year-old Ben Olivero died of a suspected fentanyl overdose in late July.

"It was very, very scary," said Hickey, describing how he walked past Olivero the night he died, thinking he was asleep.

"[It's] a wakeup call for all of us in downtown, actually."

WATCH | Niall Hickey explains what prompted him to try to make downtown St. John's a little safer:

He led a naloxone training pub crawl after overdose death nearby

6 months ago
Duration 2:12
Niall Hickey of the Newfoundland Embassy says he was more than shaken when a 20-year-old man overdosed just steps away from the pub he co-owns. So he did something to make the whole downtown area a little safer.

Before Olivero's death, Hickey said, he knew nothing about naloxone, a drug that temporarily reverses the effects of opiate overdoses, or how to spot the signs of an overdose. Now he keeps spare kits behind the bar, ready to use them whenever it's needed.

He was taken by surprise, he added, at how easy the training was — but notes he wouldn't have had a clue how to use the kit without someone walking him through it.

"They showed us how to break the vial, pull it into the needle itself, and just inject it into [an] orange," he said. "It was super-simple."

Addiction a growing concern

The Safe Works Access Program, a harm reduction organization, says it handed out over 400 naloxone kits in July — 20 per cent more than usual — after at least 11 people died from cocaine- and opiate-related overdoses.

On the heels of those deaths, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary warned the public that fentanyl-contaminated cocaine would likely be the new normal in a province that has largely avoided the crisis battering other parts of the country.

Harm reduction advocates also told CBC News that more fentanyl has been appearing in the Atlantic provinces in recent months.

Hickey says he witnesses people grappling with addiction constantly on the street just outside his pub, and he believes a safe consumption site in the downtown core is the next rational step to saving lives.

"We see it every day. The downtown core is full," Hickey said. 

"It's about harm reduction right now. It's not going to stop. You know, you just gotta find ways to help."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's who previously worked in Vancouver and Toronto. News tip? Reach her at malone.mullin@cbc.ca.

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