The key to curbing addictions and overcoming the opioid crisis is to provide addicts with a recovery-oriented system of care instead of supplying them with drugs, says Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions.
“Decriminalizing drugs without ensuring an easily accessible and comprehensive system of treatment and care would be irresponsible and could lead to serious and unforeseen impacts on our communities,” said Jason Luan in an email to The Epoch Times.
“We believe the focus needs to be a comprehensive and full continuum of care, focused on recovery,” he said, adding that this is why Alberta has been moving from “a system based on acute disease management to one that is based on health promotion and outcomes.”
Alberta’s strategy, which includes five new addiction recovery centres to be built across the province, challenges the “harm reduction” model of addiction treatment promoted by many of Canada’s top health officials.
“[Recovery] must be the basis of Alberta’s strategy,” Premier Jason Kenney said at an event in July 2020 announcing a new treatment facility in Red Deer.
The Alberta government’s approach stands in contrast to the growing calls for Ottawa to decriminalize hard drugs for personal use, the aim being to complement harm reduction through a safe supply.
“Safe supply,” according to the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, is defined as “a legal and regulated supply of drugs with mind/body altering properties that traditionally have been accessible through the illicit drug market.” The drugs include heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and crystal methamphetamines, as well as marijuana and hallucinogens such as MDMA and LSD.
In May, the City of Vancouver became the first jurisdiction in Canada to request a federal drug law exemption, when it submitted its final proposal to Health Canada seeking to decriminalize the simple possession of 15 illicit drugs under a certain threshold amount.
“Instead, people would be offered to voluntarily be connected with services, and their substances for personal use and paraphernalia would not be confiscated,” the city states on its webpage that explains the exemption request.
This follows the B.C. government’s announcement a month earlier that it will officially request a federal exemption from Health Canada so that substance users can have access to drugs anywhere in the province without stigma.
“Through provincewide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use, and support people to reach out for help, life-saving supports and treatment,” Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said in a statement on April 14.
Calls for decriminalization have increased as a result of the surge in overdose deaths since the COVID-19 pandemic began, particularly in B.C., Ontario, and Alberta, with many overdoses caused by powerful opioids such as fentanyl.
Experts have said that border closures and other COVID-19 related social changes have affected Canada’s illegal drug supply, with more drugs being made or altered in Canada and sold on the street with potentially fatal toxicity. Lockdowns and restrictions both played key roles in decreasing availability of direct services and support for drug users and those suffering from addiction.
‘No Safe Supply’
In an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal last May, Luan disagreed with the suggestion made by decriminalization advocates that there is a “safe supply” of illicit drugs. He also said “their claim that the illegal hard drug supply is more toxic than it has been in recent years is not grounded in evidence.”
“Drug intelligence sources from both the Calgary Police Service and Edmonton Police Service confirm the drug supply is no more toxic now than it has been in the past,” he wrote. “Illicit drugs have always been and will always be deadly and dangerous. For people suffering from addiction, there is no safe supply of addictive narcotics.”
Moreover, Luan stressed that “addiction does not exist in drugs; it exists in people.”
“Supplying these narcotics to addicts will not end the addiction crisis in which we find ourselves. Let us not forget this current crisis began with doctors freely prescribing opioids to the general population,” he wrote.
Though Alberta’s focus is a recovery-based strategy, Luan told The Epoch Times that the province still looks forward to examining the proposals put forward by the federal government and working to “ensure we have effective treatment and recovery systems before making decisions about decriminalization.”
In addition, providing access to addiction services and safe communities is the Alberta government’s priority, he said. One important step is the removal of daily user fees for publicly funded residential addiction treatment, thus reducing the financial burden on those in need of help.
Other steps Luan’s department has taken include a commitment to creating 4,000 additional recovery beds, directing non-violent offenders to drug treatment court, and announcing $25 million to create recovery communities across the province.
“The Alberta Model is a recovery-oriented system of care that includes prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery. It is designed based on the belief that all Albertans deserve the opportunity to recover, and that recovery is not only possible, but also attainable for everyone,” Luan said.
As for the pending closure of a supervised drug consumption site at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in downtown Calgary, Luan said the decision was made because the site “has been highly disruptive” to the neighbourhood.
He notes, however, that consumption services will continue to operate in Alberta, with the government taking a “city-by-city approach” regarding the location of the sites.
“Our principled approach will continue to provide services while protecting community safety,” he said, adding that his department will open two more sites in locations that are closer to those who need them.
Luan said the Chumir site will not close until the new facilities are operational.