Alberta data reveals deadliest month for toxic drug fatalities in 7 years

April marks the deadliest month on record for overdose deaths in Alberta, according to new data on the province's substance use surveillance system. Prescription pills containing oxycodone and acetaminophen are shown in Toronto, Dec. 23, 2017. Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

April marks the deadliest month on record for overdose deaths in Alberta, according to new data on the province’s substance use surveillance system.

The province released data on Monday showing 179 people died in April this year from the toxic drug supply, bringing the yearly total to 613.

This is more than 46 per cent higher than in April 2022, when 123 toxic drug deaths were recorded. It is also higher than pre-pandemic levels — the province recorded 51 toxic drug deaths in April 2019.

The previous record was set in December 2021, when 175 toxic drug deaths were recorded.

In an emailed statement to Global News, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Dan Williams said the most recent data shows why addressing drug use and illegal drug trafficking is important.

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“As Alberta’s government, we recognize the devastating losses felt by families and communities as a result of addiction, drug abuse and illicit trafficking,” the statement read.

“While we have made significant strides towards this vision over the past four years, it is clear more needs to be done to support treatment and recovery from addiction.

“Together we will achieve our moral obligation to prevent suffering for our children, to help those suffering with addiction pursue recovery, and to hold criminals, who have caused so much harm in our communities, accountable.”

Angela Staines, founder of the 4B Harm Reduction Society and Alberta representative for Moms Stop The Harm, called the statistic “heartbreaking” and “horrifying.” She said the United Conservative government is stigmatizing drug users as violent people that cannot be trusted, which stops them from seeking help because they don’t feel safe or supported.

“We have a government that continuously pushes that stigma and gaslights, and people are raised to trust the government … And the government is telling them that these people are violent and/or should not be trusted, and they believe it,” she told Global News.

“Until we really talk about that stigma, and understand that stigma and what it does to people, and how it breaks people down … It pushes them into places to use their drugs (where) they’re not safe. They’re alone.”

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This is the first time the province updated its substance use surveillance system since January. When asked about the delay, Williams’ spokesperson Hunter Baril said updating the system is a “significant undertaking” and monthly mortality data usually has a two-month lag time.

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Baril also said government communication activities are restricted during an election period (May 1 to 29) and the posting of any web content is subject to this policy.

“This policy is also followed while government is in a ‘care-taker’ period immediately following an election until a new Cabinet is sworn in and new Ministers are briefed on their files,” Baril told Global News in an emailed statement on June 14.

“Outside of an election writ period, (substance use surveillance system) updates, and subsequent communications of the updates, vary depending on the data set.

“Full, overall data updates are done on a quarterly basis — that has always been the practice. Quarterly updates do take longer than 2 months after the end of the quarter so this can then affect the posting timeline of the mortality data for the last month of that quarter.”

In an emailed statement, Edmonton-Riverview MLA Lori Sigurdson accused Premier Danielle Smith of lying about addressing the toxic drug crisis.

Smith previously said her government has added 10,000 treatment spaces to provide detox and recovery services for up to 29,000 Albertans every year.

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During the 2023 Alberta election, Smith said her government has focused on recovery and treatment while the NDP, which has endorsed supervised consumption sites as one component of care for addiction, would make things worse.

“The human cost of Danielle Smith’s dishonesty and incompetence is heartbreaking,” Sigurdson said in an emailed statement on Monday afternoon.

“While the death toll from preventable drug poisonings was surging, and we should have been mobilizing every resource to respond, Smith was lying to Albertans that she had solved the problem.

“How many Albertans died waiting for help that never came?”

Staines said the Alberta government needs to talk to harm reduction and advocacy groups to understand how stigma affects drug users.

She added a safe supply of drugs is needed as an alternative to the toxic drug supply in Alberta. Safe supply is a legal and regulated supply of drugs that traditionally have only been accessible in illegal markets.

British Columbia is the first province to offer prescribed safe supply, where clinicians prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs such as opioids. The B.C. government invested $184 million over three years to support safer substances for those suffering from mental health issues and addictions, according to its website.

Former premier Jason Kenney rejected the idea for Alberta, saying he doesn’t believe in “giving free drugs” as a solution to the toxic drug crisis.

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“I think decriminalization is a small piece. We do need to have a regulated safe supply as well,” Staines said.

“Nothing will stop these deaths without that safe supply at this point and these numbers are showing that. So it really is a war on the people who are using drugs for ideologically based war.

“We need to be speaking to these people, to the community, and finding out what they need. We need to stop telling them what they need.”

Multi-modal approach needed to address addictions

Monty Ghosh, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Cummings School of Medicine and an addictions specialist, said drug addictions are so complex it needs a multi-modal solution.

Addictions happen when a substance causes more-than-normal levels of dopamine to be released to the brain, he said.

For example, eating a good meal may release 75 nanograms per decilitre of dopamine to our brains, while sex releases 100 nanograms per decilitre of dopamine. Drugs like crystal meth may release 500 nanograms per decilitre of dopamine — five times the amount of sex.

No other natural substance can recreate this feeling of pure joy, Ghosh said.

“I think there is this concept of substance use disorders as being a behavioural choice or moral choice that people are making, that they just chose to use substances now that they’re immoral individuals. And what the science shows (is) that this is an actual biological process, an actual disease, much like diabetes, high blood pressure, a heart disease. It’s no different,” he told QR Calgary on Tuesday.

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What makes it complex are the added psychological and social factors, such as homelessness, trauma and mental health, Ghosh added.

“We talk about dealing with addiction through the biological mechanisms of dealing with this dopamine release, but there are also psychological and social factors that play into this,” the assistant professor said.

“Tackling each of these issues is important … If we only tackle one of these issues, then we are at a higher risk of not treating them well. They’re at higher risk of having a relapse. They’re at a higher risk of potentially going back to those substances and overdosing.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta’s overdose response app has been used 200 times'
Alberta’s overdose response app has been used 200 times

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