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Edmonton Councillor proposes giving out opioids to fight drug crisis

WATCH: Edmonton councillor Scott McKeen suggested treating addiction as a medical issue - not quite decriminalization of all drugs, but almost. Fletcher Kent has more from city hall.

An Edmonton City Councillor is suggesting a radical approach to tackling Alberta’s opioid crisis.

Scott McKeen says creating supervised places to consume drugs doesn’t go far enough; providing the drugs could save more lives.

“I get it. It’s controversial. Giving drugs to drug addicts doesn’t seem to make sense to some people but it makes complete sense to me.”

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McKeen made the comments at a city committee meeting on Wednesday. He feels addiction should be treated as a medical issue, not a criminal one.

“Certainly I’m not saying we have opioid dispensaries on every corner. What I’m saying is like other medical conditions, you are diagnosed with a opioid dependency disorder and you are prescribed medication.”

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READ MORE: 4th supervised consumption site in Edmonton set to open Monday at Boyle McCauley

Patients would also be provided with support to help them deal with any underlying issues that may have led to their drug dependencies.

McKeen argues the approach would keep people from stealing or selling sex to have enough money to feed drug habits and it would allow users to more easily seek help.

He adds other Edmontonians would enjoy reduced crime rates and police would be freed up to handle other crimes.

READ MORE: Opioid-related deaths continue to soar in Alberta, up 40% over last year

The discussion began during a meeting in which Alberta Health Services updated the province’s opioid crisis.

The latest numbers show opioid deaths in the province have stopped climbing. Between April 1 and June 30, 2018, 160 Albertans died from an opioid overdose. That’s down from 170 deaths in the first three months of 2018.

Eighty-seven per cent of those opioid-related deaths were due to fentanyl.

Watch July 5, 2018: Hundreds more Albertans will die of a fentanyl overdose this year. But Alberta is spending $63 million to fight the opioid crisis and as Tom Vernon reports, the strategy may be seeing some results.

Alberta fentanyl deaths still rising in 2018, but at a slower rate
Alberta fentanyl deaths still rising in 2018, but at a slower rate
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It’s a slight decrease but on one hand, the numbers encourage Dr. Chris Sikora with AHS.

They show harm-reduction measures like new supervised consumption sites and Naloxone kits, which reverse opioid overdoses, are making a difference.

READ MORE: Edmonton teenager calls for overdose education after ‘life-or-death’ situation

Sikora told the committee the Naloxone kits, which are being offered free of charge, are “flying off the shelves.”

“There has been opportunities for reversals, for life-saving interventions for individuals who have used those sites and I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

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However, he also acknowledges the statistics remain troubling.

While opioid deaths are dropping, people continue to die at a rate three times as high as in 2015, when AHS began reporting the information.

READ MORE: Alberta fentanyl deaths continue to rise in 2018 – but at a slower rate

High death rates prompted McKeen’s position and he’s not alone.

Marliss Taylor is with Street Works, the organization that operates supervised consumption sites in Edmonton.

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“The street market is poisonous right now. We have to absolutely do more about getting people pharmaceutical grade medications,” she said.

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“People are dying here and I think we need to be more aggressive in what we’re trying to do.”

Earlier this month, 99 different organizations attending a Canadian drug policy conference in Edmonton called for the decriminalization of all drugs in hopes of better protecting users.

READ MORE: Canada could decriminalize personal drug possession – but here’s why it’s unlikely

Portugal has already decriminalized drug use.

The issue was discussed during Vancouver’s recent municipal election.

Of course, only the federal government can decriminalize drug use or allow doctors to treat addicts with certain drugs. The Trudeau Liberals recently said they had no plans to make any more changes to Canada’s drug laws beyond the legalization of cannabis.

With these latest statistics, there’s a growing contingent on Edmonton City Council that says it’s time other orders of government began to lobby Ottawa.

“Advocacy is what we do now,” McKeen said.

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Councillor Michael Walters agreed saying: “We have to advocate for that and I think that’s what we talked about today.”

Watch: According to new data by the federal government, nearly 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses in 2017. Most of those deaths were accidental and involved fentanyl.

Here’s what you need to know about opioid overdoses in Canada
Here’s what you need to know about opioid overdoses in Canada
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