How Alberta is tackling its toxic drug crisis

A recent analysis article authored by Lisa Johnson and published in the Edmonton Journal discussed the “recovery-oriented care” model used by the provincial government based on the notion that individuals struggling with addiction should be supported in their recovery.

According to the analysis, since Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) formed government in early 2019, the number of overdose deaths has increased from two to four per day, with November and December 2021 being the deadliest months, with six people per day dying of any kind of drug poisoning.

While the UCP’s election platform had promised to “make investments to reverse Alberta’s opioid crisis,” it attributed the deaths to “opioid addiction.”

After his election, Premier Jason Kenney’s government has framed the deadly public health emergency as one of addiction, which would be best addressed with improved access to treatment and recovery services.

“The answer is not more drugs. The answer is not keeping people in a perpetual state of pain and suffering,” said Mental Health and Addictions Associate Minister Mike Ellis at a news conference in Medicine Hat earlier in March.

In 2019, the Alberta government had allocated $140 million over four years to create its recovery-oriented system of care and network of community-based services for people suffering from addiction, which was boosted by another $20 million per year starting in 2022.

The spending plan included eliminating user fees for publicly funded treatment so clients didn’t have to pay out of pocket. Furthermore, the province had created approximately 8,560 new addiction, treatment, and recovery spaces, increasing the provincial total to over 27,000 from 19,000 spaces, with previously unfunded beds now funded by the Mental Health and Addictions ministry.

Moreover, Alberta plans to begin implementing My Recovery Plan, an online health record software system for operators in April, with the aim of connecting facilities and Albertans trying to access treatment beds, aggregating waitlists and tracking individual recovery goals and outcomes.

The government has also released an emergency response app, the Digital Overdose Response System (DORS), which alerts first responders of potential overdoses and expanded the reach of the AHS Virtual Opioid Dependency Program (VODP) which connects people to treatment, including prescriptions for methadone, as well as Suboxone and Sublocade which can provide stabilization, reduce cravings, and potentially block overdoses.

However, drug poisoning deaths across the province reached a record high in 2021, while experts voiced concerns over the province’s lack of supervised consumption sites and hesitation to examine safe supply as a harm reduction strategy.

In 2020, the province closed ARCHES, Lethbridge’s only supervised consumption site, and plans to close Calgary’s only supervised consumption site at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre.

“What we are seeing because of the lack of supervised safe consumption sites is people in the downtown core are actually coming towards LRT stations and injecting in the view of security cameras so they can be seen just in case they overdose,” said Edmonton mayor Amarjeet Sohi. “People are desperate for help, and that help is not there.”

Sohi also said he has been contacting federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos to discuss the possibility of sidestepping the province to get federal funding for services, but the challenge is that health transfers and social services transfers go to provinces, and not directly to cities.

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