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Alberta’s committee examining safer supply programs, which provide people dependent on illicit substances access to medical-grade drugs such as opioids, recommended that should the province adopt such a strategy the products should be consumed under strict supervision to avoid spillover into the community.

The group made the recommendation Tuesday, as it passed a number of motions designed to stem the flow of potentially addictive drugs into the black market. The committee, for example, also recommended Alberta find ways to eliminate the influence of the pharmaceutical industry in medical education to counter the overprescribing of opioids. The group noted improper prescription practices fostered the addiction and overdose epidemic in North America.

The governing United Conservative Party (UCP) favours drug policies that focus on treatment and recovery over harm-reduction programs such as safer supply and supervised drug-use sites. In British Columbia, where toxic illicit drugs killed an average of 6.1 people each day in 2021, a panel in March recommended that province expand its safer supply pilot programs to include non-prescription-based models.

Mickey Amery, one of the eight UCP MLAs on the committee, on Tuesday noted the group repeatedly heard concerns about drugs obtained through safer supply programs being sold on the street, potentially hurting the intended recipient, who may sell their clean supply and replace it with a cheaper but more lethal dose.

To prevent such a scenario, the committee recommended the government “allow for supply replacement in the context of a treatment plan under strict in-clinic medical supervision.”

While this could serve as a framework for prospective safer supply programs, critics argue barriers to access, such as the requirement for a prescription or to consume the drugs in a medical setting, can hamper the effectiveness of such programs.

The committee also expressed concerns that an increase in drug supply could hurt the broader community, spurring more addiction and overdoses.

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However, the BC Coroners Service, in an update May 3, said there is “no indication that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths.”

Alberta last week said 120 people died from opioid poisonings in March, 2022, the fewest for any month since April, 2021. In the first three months of 2022, Alberta counted 444 deaths from opioid overdoses, compared with 360 in the first three months of 2021 and 161 deaths the year prior.

Alberta’s safer supply committee expressed concern over doctors overprescribing opioids, with provincial data showing 17,162 people per 100,000 residents received opioids from community pharmacies to treat chronic pain in the first quarter of 2022, compared with a rate of 17,075 in the same period in 2021.

In the first quarter of 2020, prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, community pharmacies in Alberta dispensed opioids at a rate of 20,394 people per 100,000 residents.

The safer supply committee also recommended Alberta “explore options for enhancing police ability to use alternatives to the criminal justice system to support an individual’s path to recovery from addiction and in support of the community at large.”

The committee has until June 30 to present its report to the legislature.

B.C. in 2023 will decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs, after receiving Ottawa’s support at the end of last month. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney criticized the move, arguing B.C. and Canada were pursuing “their agenda of normalizing drug use by decriminalizing deadly and dangerous drugs.”

He added: “Alberta’s government will never allow our communities to become sanctuaries for cartels and drug traffickers. This action will likely result in a dramatic increase in drug use, violence, trafficking and addiction – something that health systems are already overburdened with.”

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