Decrease in toxic drug deaths in Alberta should not be celebrated: expert

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WATCH: It's International Overdose Awareness Day and the most recent numbers from Alberta show the number of opioid-related deaths so far in 2023 is up by more than nine per cent -- 770 in the first five months of 2023 compared to 701 in the same period in 2022. Morgan Black speaks to Rhonda Pouliot about the death of her son Chris Shea, and the hole it has left – Aug 31, 2023

Alberta is reporting a drop in toxic drug deaths in May and June this year, but experts are saying this is not a sustained drop nor a reversal of a trend.

According to data from the province’s substance use surveillance system, another 151 people died from toxic drug poisonings in May 2023. This is an increase of 19.84 per cent compared with May 2022, and a 27.42-per cent increase compared with May 2021.

Another 157 people died in June 2023, a 21.77-per cent increase compared with June 2022 and a 21.71-per cent increase compared with June 2021.

This is a drop from April 2023, the deadliest month on record according to the province.

So far, 937 Albertans died from the toxic drug supply in 2023, a 15.97-per cent increase compared to the same time period last year.

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In a statement to Global News, press secretary to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions Hunter Baril said a nationwide increase in “the deadly disease of addiction” has been a big concern for the Alberta government.

Baril said more than 10,000 treatment spaces were created since 2019 to help Albertans struggling with addiction.

“These facilities, along with any other publicly-funded treatment centre offer addiction treatment at no cost, thanks to our government removing the financial barrier. This should never hold someone back from accessing the life-saving treatment they need,” Baril’s statement read.

“Albertans know that this is the right path to take, as it gives a compassionate and dignified path forward for those suffering from the deadly disease of addiction.”

Jennifer Jackson, assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s nursing faculty, said the decrease in toxic drug deaths in May and June this year is part of a cycle, not a trend.

Toxic drug death numbers are still at record highs compared to pre-pandemic levels and the toxic drug supply remains an issue, she said.

“If we have several more months where the numbers are lower, I would be more optimistic that we’re actually getting a reversal of the trend,” Jackson told Global News on Monday.

“Treatment is absolutely necessary and we do need robust inpatient care for folks who are struggling with addiction. There’s no question that those things are needed and our facilities need to be updated.

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“However, dead people don’t recover. We need to have harm reduction strategies as well.”

A crisis made up of a lot of factors

The toxic drug crisis is also a very complicated issue, meaning there isn’t one factor that causes it.

Jackson said a lot of people, especially men, are suffering from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety because of economic pressures such as inflation, which may increase the risk of toxic drug use.

Jackson added the lack of policies and diverse treatment options are also contributing factors to the toxic drug crisis. While robust treatment centres are necessary to tackle the toxic drug crisis, Jackson said abstinence-based approaches need to include strategies based on harm reduction.

“We are losing many Albertans and we are having barely a ripple of a policy response, and this is incredibly frustrating for people like myself who do research … The house is on fire and (the government) is doing nothing,” she said.

“Often in these frameworks, harm reduction and abstinence-based recovery are seen as being in opposition when actually they’re two of a suite of options, and we need more of those options right now.

“For a lot of people who are using drugs and are experiencing homelessness or are residential school survivors, the idea of going into an institutionalized recovery centre is traumatizing. That’s never going to be an attractive option, nor will it ever be. We need more than one path to allow people to define their recovery.”

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More policies and resources are needed to tackle crisis

Jackson told Global News there are some options that could be implemented to solve the toxic drug crisis in Alberta.

Supervised consumption sites across the province need to be equipped to help those who choose to inhale their drugs, not just those who inject them, she said. Drug inhalation is the most popular way to use drugs and the majority of sites in Alberta are ill-equipped to help.

“This could be as simple as a tent, some tables and chairs, and a crew of peer support workers and health-care professionals. An emergency-type of response can be done if we had the political will at all levels to do that,” she said.

“That would be the fastest and most efficient thing we can do right now.”

Resources and supports for drug users also need to be located in central areas, Jackson said. These resources need to be accessible via public transit and other social services like shelters.

Jackson also recommended an expansion of mental health resources across the province. Instead of having a supervised consumption site, the Alberta government should build facilities that provide a wide range of services like counselling.

“Make them available across the city and invite the public in. Currently (Calgary) only has one supervised consumption site,” she said.

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“If we can build sites that are closer to where people live, they don’t have to travel as far. We can spread out who’s accessing care.

“In turn, we would also probably see benefits on our transit system because we know that people are using drugs and then getting on transit. If they have an adverse reaction, they’re in a public place … And some of the public fears related to transit could be addressed if we had more robust services.”

However, none of these resources can be put in place if the province doesn’t acknowledge the toxic drug crisis, Jackson said.

A lot of drug users don’t choose to become addicted to drugs, she said. Oftentimes drugs are used to manage trauma from abuse and violence when counselling is too expensive.

“I would also like to see a frank acknowledgement that this is a crisis and a lot of people in our province are dying and that we can take practical steps such as increasing the availability of naloxone, especially nasal spray naloxone,” she said.

“It’s hard for someone to say that they are traumatized and need help, especially when it’s, for the most part, very expensive if it is available at all.

“The more time I spend doing this work, the more I see that a failure to protect children, a failure to provide interventions and support that could mediate the effects of some of these things.”


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