Experts say Alberta’s model for combating drug poisoning in the province is not working as opioid-related deaths reached an all-time high this April.
The latest provincial data, released Monday, shows 179 people died from drug poisoning in April, the deadliest month on record for Alberta — a 45-per-cent increase compared to April 2022.
“These numbers suggest that we might be on track for the worst year yet,” said Elaine Hyshka, Canada Research Chair in health systems innovation, who focuses on new strategies to address the overdose crisis.
Hyshka, who is also a public health professor at the University of Alberta, said the increased number of overdoses shows the illegal supply of drugs in Alberta is highly toxic.
“Everybody who is purchasing from the illegal market is at risk of fatal overdose.”
Hyshka said the government lacks an emergency response to the crisis.
“The statistics reflect the fact that the provincial government does not have a plan to address toxic drug poisoning,” she said.
Mental Health and Addiction Minister Dan Williams said Tuesday it is clear from the data that more needs to be done to address the addiction crisis.
“Investing in recovery is not a choice that we make, but it is our moral obligation to allow for better futures for those suffering today,” Williams said in a statement.
The minister said the United Conservative Party has funded services such as naloxone distribution, sterile supplies and drug consumption sites.
He said the government is constructing 11 new recovery communities across the province, including those in partnership with First Nations.
At a news conference Tuesday, the New Democrats accused the UCP government of holding back the latest data on opioid-related deaths until after the provincial election.
The premier’s office denied the claims and said Premier Danielle Smith was briefed about the data after the May 29 vote.
The Office of the Minister of Mental Health and Addiction said it usually takes about two months to update such data.
It said Williams was also briefed on the new numbers shortly after he was sworn into office on June 9.
Smith, who was at the western premiers meeting in Whistler, B.C., said all the premiers have some programs in place to address addiction and mental-health treatment.
“In Alberta, we’ve got a recovery-oriented system of care that forms the basis for how we address mental health and addiction issues.
“But each of the premiers knows that there are two sides to this. Those who are the victims of the disease and the victims of those peddling these poisonous opioids, and those who are on the crime side (of it),” she said.
Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said the policy on cracking down on drug trafficking has been discredited.
He said a study published earlier this month in the American Journal of Public Health shows that increased policing enforcement on drug trafficking increases the risk of overdose events.
Perrin said cracking down on trafficking destabilizes the drug supply, making space for newer organized crime groups trying to fill the gap for those still looking for drugs.
“There is no concern for quality control for those working in organized crimes,” he said.
Perrin said the Alberta government has opposed safer supply to substitute the unregulated, toxic drugs that are the primary cause of opioid-related deaths.
“They’ve opposed providing people with drugs of known contents and potency to replace toxic drugs, even though there’s evidence that that approach does save lives,” he said.