Alberta government report on safe consumption ‘pseudoscience,’ says medical journal

A paper in a prominent medical journal says an Alberta government report that influenced safe drug consumption policy is so badly flawed it's harming people and should be withdrawn. The inside of the Fraser Health supervised consumption site is pictured in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A paper recently published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health says an Alberta government report that influenced supervised drug consumption policies is so flawed it should be withdrawn.

The paper in the Canadian Journal of Public Health calls the government’s 2019 report into seven supervised consumption sites pseudoscience.

According to the paper, the province’s report provided an unbalanced report of the results because it did not adequately consider data refuting the findings, but instead emphasized anecdotes that support the government’s point of view. The researchers added the Alberta government’s paper explicitly ignored any positive social and health impacts that supervised consumption sites provide.

The paper also suggests the government’s report inaccurately described the role of supervised consumption sites through an over-reliance of anecdotal evidence and faulty assumptions of harm reduction strategies.

For example, the Alberta government claims that supervised consumption sites are facilities to prevent drug poisoning deaths in its 2019 report. However, Alberta Health said these facilities are places to minimize harms associated with unregulated drug use.

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The 14 co-authors also argued the Alberta government’s study has confirmation bias, or the over-emphasis of evidence supporting their hypothesis instead of evidence refuting their hypothesis. The government-commissioned study did not draw on Canadian or international literature to make its claims, nor did it discuss whether the results refute or support findings from previous research.

The paper also points out the government study was not peer-reviewed, unlike the journal article.

The study comes after more than 1,200 people died from toxic drugs in Alberta this year, much higher than pre-pandemic numbers in the same time period. Recent data from the Alberta government’s substance use surveillance system indicates 147 people died from toxic drugs in August 2023.

It also comes after the United Conservative Party voted to decrease funding for supervised consumption sites across the province at its recent annual general meeting, which was held from Nov. 3 – 4.

Jenny Godley, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, said she is worried that the paper will spread misinformation about supervised consumption sites and harm reduction programs. Godley is one of the co-authors of the journal article.

“We were concerned that these kinds of reports were used to justify decisions here,” Godley told Global News.

“Now they’re being cited in other places … It looks like it’s scientific, and people will start to take it as a properly researched piece then use it in other settings when it really should not be used.

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“The main issue is that they used unscientific methods for the qualitative data collection and the quantitative data collection and reporting, but then they report it as though it’s a scientific paper.”

Godley added the journal article was published to preserve Alberta’s public health-care system and the safety of drug users. There are a lot of research on safe consumption sites that shows they are safe and that they work but that research was ignored, she said.

“To ignore all that evidence, that has been collected scientifically and reported on scientifically, is quite scary … I think a lot of what was said came from an ideological position, which the United Conservative Party continues to hold,” Godley said.

“We need a plethora of opportunities for people to get help, and harm reduction programs also lead to lots of other benefits for people because they put people in contact with social service agencies. It’s not just about preventing deaths, although they do prevent deaths.

“Opioid-related deaths keep going up. It’s just so sad that we wouldn’t want to offer all the range of options that can help people who are in these circumstances.”

The report also needs to be retracted, according to Godley and her co-authors.

“We would like some of the authors to think about whether they want their names attached to such a report, which is clearly not scientifically sound,” she said.

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Hunter Baril, press secretary for the ministry of mental Health and addictions, said in an emailed statement that the Alberta model of care provides services such as drug consumption sites while balancing the safety and wellbeing of communities. The services are part of a larger system focused on supporting long-term recovery from addiction, he said.

“Through the Alberta recovery model, we are committed to removing barriers to recovery by building capacity and making services more accessible throughout the province,” Baril’s statement read.

“Our compassionate approach is ensuring recovery is possible for every person suffering from the deadly disease of addiction.”

–With files from The Canadian Press.

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