Alberta’s newly elected United Conservative government is launching a review of the province’s existing supervised drug-use sites and putting a hold on new locations in the midst of a public health crisis fuelled by opioid abuse.
The review will look at the province’s response to the opioid crisis and attempt to find a balance between the health services provided by Alberta’s half-dozen supervised drug-use sites and community concerns that crime has increased significantly around the sites, according to Jason Luan, the associate minister of Mental Health and Addictions.
Supervised drug-use sites under development in Medicine Hat, Red Deer and a mobile location in Calgary will receive no further funding from the Alberta government until the review is completed. The review panel hasn’t been selected yet and Mr. Luan said he does not know when the work will be done.
“We are interested in looking at consumption sites in light of the whole strategy – the overall strategy of intervention and treatment. It is a whole scan, from awareness, prevention and intervention to treatment. I believe the supervised consumption site is just one spot along that continuum,” Mr. Luan told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
More than two Albertans are now dying daily from an accidental opioid overdose, with fatalities from the misuse of drugs such as fentanyl hitting a record high of 746 in 2018. According to Statistics Canada, Alberta’s life expectancy began to decline between 2016 and 2017 as the number of overdose deaths soared. The surge in deaths among young men offset longer lives for seniors, ending decades of annual increases for life expectancy in the province.
As overdose deaths increased rapidly, outpaced only by the scale of the opioid crisis in neighbouring British Columbia, Alberta’s former New Democrat government funded a number of supervised drug-use sites across the province. Experts say those sites have reversed thousands of overdoses and saved hundreds of lives.
Hakique Virani, an Edmonton-based public-health and addiction-medicine specialist, said a halt on new sites, which he described as Alberta’s most effective response to the opioid crisis, would only make things worse.
“This is a public-health intervention with decades of rigorous study and piles of published literature supporting it as a critical life-saving health-equity measure. In that regard, no review is required,” he said.
Police in Calgary reported on Thursday that calls for service immediately around the city’s sole supervised drug-use site increased over the three-year average by 50 per cent during the first three months of 2019. There was a 2-per-cent drop across the city over the same period. Following a public outcry about increasing crime, police began significantly increasing patrols around the site earlier this year.
Prior to the April 16 election that brought Premier Jason Kenney’s conservatives to power, the party had promised to conduct a socio-economic analysis of existing sites and only allow new sites that offer treatment services and had engaged in extensive consultations with locals before opening. Mr. Luan, a social worker by training, said it was too soon to say whether any existing sites could be closed owing to the review.
Mr. Kenney said in March that the main supervised drug-use sites in Calgary and Edmonton were problematic due to reports of crime and discarded needles. According to the Premier, the former government had placed too much emphasis on the sites and harm-reduction, and not enough on increasing treatment options for drug users.
Heather Sweet, the NDP critic on mental health and addictions, said she hoped Mr. Kenney’s government would break with their platform on the sites. “I think this a rash and ideological decision made by a Premier who views these facilities as places where people inject poison into their bodies. He’s doing this from an ideological view,” she said.
While the Premier has pledged to freeze most of the government’s budgets, $100-million over four years has been set aside to implement a new mental-health and addictions strategy. Mr. Luan said the review will help decide how those additional funds are spent.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government undertook a similar review, as well as a halt on new sites, after the election of Premier Doug Ford. That province has capped the number of supervised drug-use sites in certain areas and has required operators to shift their focus to providing more treatment services.