Supervised consumption debate sparked again as opioid-related deaths skyrocket in Alberta
CALGARY -- A dramatic increase in the number of opioid-related deaths has many calling for the provincial government to change its addictions approach.
Numbers released Wednesday show apparent unintentional opioid poisoning deaths increased by nearly 100 in the first half of 2020 compared to the same timeframe last year.
The Alberta COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report Q2 2020 says there were 449 unintentional opioid-related deaths in the first months of 2020 — an increase of 99 from the first half of 2019.
The majority of the 449 deaths — 414 — came as a result of a fentanyl overdose, the report said.
Some experts say that while there are many different reasons for the uptick, the provincial government hasn’t helped a bleak outlook.
“Other jurisdictions are handling this better than we are,” Dr. Jennifer Jackson told CTV News. “When supervised consumption access is decreased, deaths go up. To me, this is low hanging fruit, we need more supports.”
Jackson is a registered nurse who has studied the impact supervised consumption sites (SCS) have on community drug-use and government spending.
The report shows SCS saw a steep decline in visits — from 114,430 in the first quarter to 40,755 in the second.
Jason Kenney’s government has been outspoken on the facilities in the past, saying they are not the answer to Alberta’s drug problems. At one point, the province froze funding and closed Canada’s busiest site, which was in Lethbridge.
Some experts say that viewpoint is only amplifying the problem.
“There can be mixed opinions about supervise consumption, but I am a registered nurse and a scientist and I’m looking at what the science says, and this is something we know will work,” Jackson said.
“We need to act like our house is on fire, because it is."
Canadian Drug Policy Coalition executive direction Donald MacPherson said he wants to see "more productive and less divisive leadership from the Kenney government."
“Every jurisdiction I’ve worked with is reaching toward a comprehensive model," he said.
That comprehensive model, according to MacPherson, involves safe supplies and eventually decriminalization.
He believes the federal and provincial governments are not coordinated enough when it comes to responding to the crisis or to the toxic supply.
Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Jason Luan declined a CTV News interview request.
A spokesperson sent a statement saying, in part, “singling out a drop in supervised consumption site visits as a key player in increased overdose fatality numbers is a simplistic view of what’s going on here.
"I could likewise say that given that treatment centres, support groups, and other services were following public health guidelines and taking fewer patients, that this has also had a significant impact on overdose deaths," it read.