Alberta's governing NDP and the official Opposition are clashing on the ethics of supervised drug consumption sites set up to help fight the growing number of deaths from opioids such as fentanyl.
United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney said in a social media post Friday that creating supervised sites to use drugs does not get to the root of the crisis and is ethically questionable.
"We absolutely need to show compassion for those suffering with addiction, and we need to help them get off drugs. But helping addicts inject poison into their bodies is not a long-term solution to the problem," said Kenney.
"We need to crack down on the criminals that are bringing poison into our communities, and we need to invest in actual treatment programs to get addicts off drugs – not spend money to help them consume drugs."
Earlier this week, Kenney told the Lethbridge Herald he would oppose more sites if he were to become premier.
Alberta is setting up supervised consumption sites as one way to combat the rising overdoses and deaths due to opioids. The sites are safe and hygienic, and addicts are monitored by trained staff to keep them from overdosing.
Health Canada has approved multiple sites across the province. A clinic in Calgary and one in Lethbridge are now open and three sites in Edmonton are to open in the coming weeks. Needs assessments are being done in other communities, including Edson, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat and Red Deer.
Lethbridge has been a crisis spot. In recent weeks, there have been more than 50 overdoses there from what police are calling a dangerous batch of street opioids.
On Friday, a spike in drug overdoses prompted the Blood Tribe to declare a state of local emergency.
The First Nation said it has dealt with at least 30 overdoses in the last seven days, including at least one death.
Indigenous leaders called for more money from the federal and Alberta governments to pay for overtime and other costs.
The First Nation said it has received more than 200 naloxone kits and will hold training sessions this weekend on how to use them to prevent overdoses.
Associate Health Minister Brandy Payne said in Calgary that the question of consumption sites is not cut and dried.
The ultimate goal is to help people beat their addictions, but in the meantime addicts still struggle with drug use and could make poor – and potentially fatal – choices as they recover, she said.
"We have a moral and ethical responsibility to help keep people alive."
Alberta has acted on multiple fronts to address the precipitous rise in fentanyl deaths in recent years.
There were six deaths in 2011, but since then the totals have risen sharply each year. There were 358 deaths in 2016 and 562 in 2017.
"It's heartbreaking every time to hear how many Albertans we have lost and to see those numbers continuing to climb," said Payne.
"We need to keep pouring in the resources that we have to keep fighting this problem, and make sure we are addressing all of the angles."
Also Friday, Payne announced a $9.5-million program over three years to help family physicians directly support patients and get them the help they need to deal with opioid addiction.
The province has also funded more treatment facilities and beds and broadened the availability and use of naloxone, an injectable drug that can block the effects of an opioid overdose.
Fentanyl is a synthetic narcotic used to relieve pain, but the drug is being illicitly manufactured and mixed to create a potentially lethal drug. Three to four grains of fentanyl can kill the average adult.
Alberta is also dealing with cases of carfentanil, which is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and is used medically to sedate large animals such as elephants. One grain of carfentanil can kill an adult.
New figures reveal carfentanil deaths soared to 159 last year from 30 in 2016.
With a file from Lethbridge News Now