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Alberta UCP promises to pass law for involuntary treatment of severely drug addicted

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith announces a public health guarantee in Sherwood Park, Alta., Tuesday, April 11, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson) Alberta Premier Danielle Smith announces a public health guarantee in Sherwood Park, Alta., Tuesday, April 11, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)
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Alberta United Conservative Leader Danielle Smith says she would bring in a bill forcing people with severe drug addiction into treatment if her government wins the May 29 election.

Smith says the legislation would balance the rights of the public with responsibility to help those in distress.

“This is about saving lives and keeping our communities safe,” Smith told a news conference in Calgary Monday.

“(It) will allow us to save the lives of addicts who are at risk of dying from an overdose and protect those who are at risk of being randomly attacked in our communities. This is actual compassion.”

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

She said her government would also create more than 700 addiction treatment beds in 11 locations, including on First Nations. There would also be five new 75-bed mental-wellness centres.

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 answer to addiction and public safety is not more drugs or ignorance or looking the other way and hoping for the best,” she said.

Smith’s UCP has also promised more police in Calgary and Edmonton to reduce violent crime, particularly on transit.

The proposed act would allow a family member, doctor, psychologist or police officer to petition a non-criminal judge to issue a treatment order.

Smith is a self-described libertarian who sharply criticized the removal of personal freedoms, particularly vaccine passports, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Asked about personal restrictions, Smith said in the case of addicts, they may not be able to make the best choices for themselves.

“We've got to restore the ability for them to be able to make decisions in their own interests to preserve their life,” she said.

“I feel very confident that what we would be doing would be fully compliant with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (under protections) for life, liberty and security of the person.”

Lorian Hardcastle, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary specializing in health law and policy, said the government would have to meet a very high bar if it’s going deprive someone of their liberty, particularly if the person is not charged with a crime.

Hardcastle said it would be up to the government to show that less invasive programs or initiatives have not worked or could not work.

“I don't know what evidence they're relying on to believe that this would be effective," said Hardcastle.

“Indeed, a lot of public health experts are quite concerned about these kinds of coercive policies not being effective and instead would say that you have to meet patients where they are and offer them a wide range of treatment options, from harm reduction options to recovery-based options.”

The proposed legislation would be the first involuntary treatment law in Canada that specifically targets addiction.

Alberta already has involuntary treatment laws in place for specific circumstances. Parents or legal guardians can petition the courts to have young people put in care for drug and alcohol disorders. The Mental Health Act allows for detainment, but only in rare cases where the person is deemed to be at risk of acute mental or physical distress or could cause harm to others.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley applauded Smith’s proposal to invest in recovery but said otherwise, the plan is flawed.

"Overall, forced recovery is not successful," Notley told reporters in Calgary.

"You have to have a whole-person response and approach. You need to be looking at far broader forms of therapy and support at the front end and a lot more transitional support at the other end."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2023.

— with files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary 

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