Opinion: Alberta pushing to expand one drug addictions program that actually works

Jun 2, 2022

In a recent opinion article published by the Edmonton Journal, David Staples discussed the current ongoing provincial government program that has gained strong support from all sides of the political spectrum.

The program is led by Grace Froese of the John Howard Society and the director of Edmonton’s Drug Treatment Court, and according to Staples, it has reached “remarkable success breaking the links between trauma, drug use and crime, and getting ex-addicts/convicted criminals on the right path”, with 70% of its graduates having no new criminal convictions. The Drug Treatment Court program was first initiated by the federal government in 1997 in Toronto, followed by Edmonton in 2005 and Calgary in 2007.

Prior to running the program, Froese had previously worked in the justice system; according to her, there were no measures, including jail time, that worked to deter addicts away from their criminal lifestyle.

“I’m telling you, I hit the jackpot,” Froese said in her interview with Staples. “Here is the solution for all these people that we used to just warehouse at the jail, and you can actually intercept them. I see lives changed every day.”

To qualify for drug court, an individual must be facing a drug-related charge with a sentence of nine months to five years.

The program requires participants to get addiction treatment and become productive members of society, or face penalties ranging from community service to expulsion from the program and jail time.

“The goal of Drug Treatment Court is abstinence. It’s not a harm reduction program,” Froese said. “In order to work with them, we have to get them off the drugs.”

Moreover, the police, prosecutor, judge, and community treatment team must all approve of an individual before they’re permitted to participate in the program.

According to Froese, some of the participants have never been to jail and are terrified of going, while others are older individuals who are caught in the drugs-crime cycle and cannot get out.

In court, program participants must plead guilty to all charges, and sentencing is delayed while they are in the program. While it takes a minimum of one year to graduate from the program, most participants stay in it for longer.

Moreover, participants must report every day to the program team, attend recovery meetings five to seven days per week, and attend meetings with a psychologist, life-skills and parenting councillors, and a probation officer, as well as go to court once per week, and comply with regular and random drug testing.

In 2020, Kenney government provided $20 million in funding for the program over four years. Moreover, Froese credits former Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer for province-wide program growth. “I really credit Doug Schweitzer for pushing hard.”

Staples concludes his opinion article with two rhetorical questions: with calls for drug decriminalization, should the jail punishment be eliminated in favour of treatment? And, would this high level of intervention be effective for individuals who struggle with addiction but do not face lengthy criminal sentences?