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The Globe and Mail

Notley government defends response to Alberta's fentanyl crisis

In the first half of 2015, 145 Albertans died from fentanyl, far outpacing the number of deaths in previous years.

The Canadian Press

Alberta's main opposition parties say Premier Rachel Notley's government has responded with indifference as deaths from fentanyl abuse have surged in the province and turned into a public-health crisis.

Ms. Notley's New Democrats have defended their response to the fast-acting opioid by pointing to the creation of a committee to review mental health care in the province. However, members of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties say resources need to be allocated immediately to overtaxed health and police services. In the first half of the year, 145 Albertans died from fentanyl.

"They have been indifferent to fentanyl so far," said Mike Ellis, a former Calgary police officer and Tory MLA. "I don't want to say that the government is doing nothing. They're reacting and supporting victims through Alberta Health Services, but that proactive approach to dealing with vulnerable people and drug dealers is completely missing."

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Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley has reached out to the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police and is seeking recommendations on ways to combat fentanyl, her office said Monday. The request came after she met with 11 police chiefs last week. However, Ms. Ganley's spokeswoman added the Health Ministry is leading the province's prevention and harm-reduction strategy.

David Swann, Alberta's interim Liberal Leader and co-chair of the province's mental health review, says health-care and human-services systems are stretched to the maximum and he will be tabling a report in December that calls for the redoubling of efforts.

"The fentanyl issue is a symptom of some deep problems in our culture and government systems that are not working as effectively as they should be to look after people with mental health issues and addictions," Dr. Swann said. "There is a tremendous need and we are all struggling to find new resources and new ways to deal with this."

A pill of fentanyl costs about $20 on the streets of Alberta's major cities and is 50 times more potent than heroin. While the drug has been tied to prescription abuse in Eastern Canada, the variant found in the Prairies is believed to be produced by organized crime. What sets fentanyl apart from other opioids is how toxic it is – two milligrams are enough to kill the average person in less than 15 minutes.

Jason Nixon, the Wildrose Party's Whip, has raised concerns that the NDP government could be cutting funding for addiction treatment in its October budget.

"My first concern is with the money for detox centres and addiction. The way we're reading the budget, there's a $13-million cut," said Mr. Nixon, who is former director of the Mustard Seed, a homeless shelter. "There are concerns amongst people working in addictions that cuts are coming, but that might be from a lack of adequate information from the government."

Questions to Alberta's Health Minister were not returned by press time. Addiction treatment centres reached by The Globe and Mail said they were concerned their budgets could be cut.

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"We need more funding for treatment and education – they are the most cost-effective ways of dealing with the problem," said Janine Copeland, clinical director for the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre. "At present there are reports of budget cuts in mental health and addiction. I'm not hopeful when I hear that kind of stuff."

While Alberta's provincial health authority has activated an emergency command centre to combat fentanyl abuse and has committed to making an antidote available to the public, Ms. Copeland would like to see the government shift its focus from harm reduction to addiction treatment.

The Calgary-based organization held a workshop last week about fentanyl that was so popular it has scheduled another for January. An addiction support group outside Edmonton called Parents Empowering Parents has seen a similar demand for information about the drug and is hosting a workshop on Tuesday.

"We should be working on the basics of prevention, treatment and education," said executive director Lerena Greig. "Let's face it, our children are dying. We've been talking about this fentanyl issue in Alberta since May and I'm not really sure what the solution is."

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