More than 1,100 people died from toxic drugs in Alberta so far in 2023

FILE - A vial containing 2mg of fentanyl, which will kill a human if ingested into the body, is displayed at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Testing and Research Laboratory in Sterling, Va., on Aug. 9, 2016. More than 1,100 people died from toxic drugs in Alberta this year, much higher than pre-pandemic numbers in the same time period. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File). CO

More than 1,100 people died from toxic drugs in Alberta this year, much higher than pre-pandemic numbers in the same time period.

According to the province’s substance use surveillance system, 161 people died from toxic drugs in July 2023.

This brings the total number of deaths to 1,104 for the first seven months of the year, more than 21 per cent higher compared with the same seven-month period last year.

However, it is still a lot higher than pre-pandemic numbers: this year’s numbers are 169 per cent higher compared with the same seven-month period in 2019.

Most drug poisonings in July happened in Calgary, which recorded 52 deaths. Edmonton and the South Zone (which includes Lethbridge and Medicine Hat) recorded 62 and 27 deaths, respectively.

However, the fatality rate is highest in the South Zone, which saw 101.2 deaths per 100,000 people in July. Edmonton recorded 49.3 deaths per 100,000 people in July, while Calgary recorded 34.6 deaths per 100,000 the same month.

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Global News reached out to Alberta’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions with a request for comment.

“The nationwide addiction crisis remains a big concern for our government, which is why we have created the Alberta Model, making recovery readily available for any Albertan,” said Hunter Baril, the ministry’s press secretary, in an email to Global News.

“These facilities, along with any other publicly-funded treatment centre offer addiction treatment at no cost. Financial barriers should never hold someone back from accessing the life-saving treatment they need.

“Albertans know a compassionate and dignified approach is the right path forward for those suffering from the deadly disease of addiction.”

Mental health and addictions critic Janet Eremenko said while treatment is a good option for those who want it, the United Conservative government is not doing enough to meet the demand.

“This overemphasis on treatment is actually narrowing the scope of services and program at a point where we need to be expanding it significantly,” Eremenko told Global News.

“We need to be throwing every resource and initiative and expertise at this issue that we can in order to save lives. If we’re only looking at treatment, we are absolutely failing to address a massive component of this issue, which is around the toxic drug supply that is killing people.”

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But many advocates say the number of toxic drug deaths may be a lot higher.

Danielle English, a harm reduction advocate, said a huge backlog at the coroner’s office means toxic drug deaths are not accurately recorded because a lot of deaths are still under investigation.

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According to data from the Alberta government, 7062 people died of unknown causes since 2019.

A Statistics Canada report said Alberta and British Columbia had higher-than-expected excess deaths throughout much of 2022. The report also said drug deaths and alcohol poisoning have risen since the pandemic was declared in 2020, and young people were disproportionately represented in these numbers.

“The moms that I talked to who are waiting for autopsy reports from their children who have passed, it could take up to a year for them to get that information,” English said.

“So many deaths that get listed as unknown or unsolved that have to be investigated further. I think that will really impact that number.”

English said the United Conservative government’s focus on abstinence-based recovery programs will make the problem worse.

A study published by Portland State University in 2022 suggests abstinence-based programs often utilize shame and stigmatization to coerce adolescents to abstain from drug use. This concept, along with zero-tolerance policies, removes adolescents from their communities rather than providing them with proper resources and support.

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“I’ve been in rehab several times. And I will say that the time in my life when I was managing my use with abstinence-based programming was the time that I was at the most risk for relapsing alone in my apartment,” she said.

“When I felt like I couldn’t be open and honest with health care professionals about my use, my use became something that was hidden and something that was not being managed by my doctors.

“I truly believe that abstinence-based programming would have killed me sooner than toxic drug supply because it forced me to lie to the medical professionals in my life and it forced me to lie to my community.”

English also said the lack of harm reduction programs and safe supply means more drug users will die from the toxic drug supply.

In Calgary, there is only one safe injection site for the entire city. That safe injection site is not equipped to help drug users who choose to inhale their drugs instead, English said.

Many drug users also suffer from medical trauma which prevents them from seeking help. Jennifer Jackson, a registered nurse and an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, previously told Global News institutionalized treatment isn’t the first option for many, especially for residential school survivors and those experiencing homelessness.

“Drug users do advocate for how they want to use (health-care) services, but (medical professionals) don’t listen to them and talk down to them,” English said.

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“I’ve been to hospitals experiencing withdrawal and they told me if they admitted addicts they would have no beds for ‘real people.’

“You don’t have an advocate or somebody who is there for you. You don’t have a peer support worker. You don’t have a constant social worker. That’s not changing.”

Harm reduction and safe supply needed

English said accessible harm reduction programs and safe supply are two of the most effective solutions for the toxic drug crisis.

An article published by John Hopkins University said harm reduction is a way to provide services to help with drug addiction, including treatment options. They are part of the same process, the article reads.

British Columbia is the first province to pilot a three-year drug criminalization project, which allows adults to possess 2.5 grams of cocaine, heroin, MDMA and methamphetamine without arrest or confiscation.

“When we have no safe supply, people are going to get (drugs) from elsewhere. And when they get it from elsewhere, they have no regulation and no support,” English said.

“It is more expensive to go to the bar and buy a beer than it is to buy it at the liquor store. But why do people go to a bar? Because of community. They pay the extra $6 because there’s community and safety. That’s a safe supply. That’s safe consumption.”

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English noted that drug users must be given the choice of whether or not they go into treatment.

“Forced treatment means forced deaths, and they don’t work. They will go back to what they know because there is no housing, no support. And it breaks their trust,” she said.

“If you give a bed to someone who is forced to be there, it will take away a bed from someone who wants to be there.”

It is also important to treat drug users with respect and see them as human beings, she said.

English said many policymakers don’t consult with drug users before creating recovery programs or passing new regulations.

“I’m 33 and it has taken me till I was 33 to have safe employment, to be able to speak openly about this and to be able to identify as a drug user without fearing persecution because we don’t listen to drug users, we don’t see what would help them,” she said.

“We need to include drug users in the conversation. If we were talking about, you know, how to make insulin more accessible, we would interview people who had diabetes. Why do we not do the same for drug users? We know what we need and we are never consulted.”

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Click to play video: 'New Alberta study examines drug deaths as testing site opens'
New Alberta study examines drug deaths as testing site opens

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