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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith announced on Tuesday that, if passed, next week’s budget would allocate $275-million to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction, what she called a 'record-breaking investment.'Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Alberta government does not know how many people are in line for addiction treatment beds and says the lack of good data makes it difficult to determine what more needs to be done to eliminate waitlists, a key focus of its drug policy.

Marshall Smith, chief of staff to Premier Danielle Smith, said during a speech at a two-day conference in Calgary on recovery from drug-use disorder, that the province is working on an online tool that tracks waitlists, site capacities and outcomes for clients. In an interview, he said establishing the UCP government in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the initiative, called My Recovery Plan.

“In the absence of having a system like that, government is left to sort of phone around from service provider to service provider and ask them to estimate how many people they have on their list,” said Mr. Smith, who is considered the architect of Alberta’s recovery-focused strategy.

“We have a generally good understanding of how much capacity we need to build right now, but it sure would be nice to be able to know at a minute-by-minute basis.”

The Alberta Recovery Conference, organized by private addiction-treatment service provider Last Door and sponsored by the Alberta government, focused on the provincial model, officially called the recovery-oriented system of care. This system began under former premier Jason Kenney and is now championed by his successor, Ms. Smith.

The transition under the United Conservative Party has favoured investments in detox, treatment and recovery services while restricting certain harm-reduction measures, such as supervised consumption services. Programs that have proved successful in reducing drug-related harms have also come under fire, including the mobile opioid agonist treatment program and a similar injectable program.

More than 1,400 Albertans died from drug overdoses – the majority of them opioid-related – between January and November last year, according to the latest government data. While drug-related deaths have decreased monthly since a high in late 2021, fatalities remain above pre-pandemic levels. On average, four people die every day in Alberta.

A small protest took place outside the conference venue on Tuesday, with advocates for harm reduction demanding oversight of the addiction-treatment industry and Alberta’s overall recovery-focused strategy. One sign read: “Cause of death? Alberta drug policy.” Rally attendees called for greater risk-reducing services, making the point that dead people do not recover.

Mr. Smith said on Wednesday it’s fair that members of the public are pushing for more robust metrics on addictions services.

“This industry needs to do better and government needs to do better to make those systems available” he said. “We want to have a fully accessible system where people can choose, you know, where they want to go based on good data.”

The Premier and Nicholas Milliken, Minister of Mental Health and Addiction, also spoke at the conference.

Ms. Smith said during her speech on Tuesday that, if passed, next week’s budget would allocate $275-million to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction, what she called a “record-breaking investment” compared to the budget in 2019 that provided about $87-million a year.

She said the funds will be used for Indigenous partnerships, treatment and recovery supports, youth mental health, first responder training, recovery communities and harm-reduction programs (Ms. Smith did not specify which ones).

“When we say recovery is possible, there are some of us that tell us we have unreasonable expectations. Critics say that recovery is not an achievable or even a realistic goal, but what they fail to understand is this: When we say recovery is possible, we’re providing hope and optimism to people who are often living without any hope,” she said.

Mr. Milliken announced, during his speech on Wednesday, that Alberta has assembled a 16-person advisory panel to determine ways to build out the recovery model. It is chaired by Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University in California.

The minister also said that Alberta has emerged as a national leader in building a recovery model. Government officials from Ontario, B.C. and Saskatchewan as well as the federal Conservative shadow minister for addictions Laila Goodridge all attended the conference.