Advancing Action on Alberta’s Drug Poisoning Crisis
IT IS THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT Alberta Municipalities advocate for the Government of Alberta to:
- Engage municipalities, people with lived and living experience, front-line agencies, and other partners as part of a comprehensive drug poisoning prevention strategy that includes harm reduction and recovery approaches and offers increased investments to address the urgent needs;
- Increase its investments into affordable housing with ongoing wraparound services as part of an integrated approach for responding to the drug poisoning crisis for homeless populations with complex challenges; and
- Immediately reinstate the inclusion of neighborhood-level data in the Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System reporting to inform a data-driven response in providing resources to sustainably implement a comprehensive drug strategy.
WHEREAS 2021 was Alberta’s deadliest year on record for drug poisonings with 1,758 deaths;
WHEREAS the devastating impacts are being felt across all communities, from big cities and suburbs to smaller remote communities, cutting across all ages, all genders, and all social strata who are at risk both in their homes and within Alberta’s most vulnerable populations;
WHEREAS the pandemic exacerbated the drug poisoning crisis in our Province with social isolation, unemployment, and mental health challenges combined with an increasingly toxic illicit drug supply and reduced capacity of services, causing drug use to be even more risky;
WHEREAS municipalities across the province are facing the impacts of the drug poisoning crisis with added pressures on their first responders, frontline agencies, policing, and the provincial justice and healthcare systems, including increased pressure on Emergency Medical Services’ (EMS) ability to provide timely response to other ongoing emergency needs;
WHEREAS research has shown that a full spectrum of supports is required, from prevention and education, to harm reduction (including naloxone access and training, supervised consumption sites, and safer supply programs), to treatment and recovery, along with ongoing mental health and addictions support to reverse the devastating impacts of this crisis; and
WHEREAS the provincial government has committed to responding to the drug poisoning crisis through increased investments in recovery-oriented care for people struggling with addiction and mental health issues, which is one tool among many that must be deployed.
2019 Alberta Municipalities Resolution
A resolution was approved at the Fall 2019 Alberta Municipalities Annual Convention, identifying a need for provincial action to address the drug poisoning crisis, including additional strategic efforts towards supporting prevention, treatment, harm reduction and community safety.
While the province has committed to providing increased support for treatment related services, there has been little advancement on the other required interventions such as harm reduction. As this resolution is expiring this year, a new resolution will provide Alberta Municipalities with the direction to continue advocating, particularly given the increasing deaths across Alberta.
Government of Alberta Focused Efforts
The Government of Alberta’s initial response to the 2019 Alberta Municipalities’ resolution referenced previous provincial budget commitments and signaled the appointment of a Mental Health and Addictions Council that would inform the government’s future actions.
In March 2022, the recommendations from the Advisory Council were released, and the report acknowledged the ongoing opioid crisis and the impact it was having on various populations including children and youth, and further highlighted the important role that housing with wrap-around services can play in responding to homeless populations with addictions or mental health issues. An overarching recommendation from the report highlighted the need to:
“Create a coordinated network providing a continuum of supports (prevention, early intervention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery) for people at risk of or suffering from addiction and mental health challenges.”
The Government’s response following the release of the report centered on their efforts to build a recovery-oriented system of care through increased investments but provided no other details on new funding or initiatives in support of prevention, harm reduction or supportive housing.
Provincial Drug Poisoning Deaths Data
The following graph shows a continued increase in monthly drug poisoning deaths from across the Province from 2019 to 2021, as taken from the Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System:
The Minister states in his response to the resolution that Alberta’s recovery-oriented system of care “provides access to a continuum of services and supports that incorporate prevention, intervention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery.” The Minister also notes that in 2019, Alberta committed $140 million over four years for recovery and treatment beds, as well as an additional $20 million annual to implement a recovery-oriented system of care.
Intent partially met – further action will be taken at a medium to high level of engagement.
Although the province continues to emphasize recovery as a key element in addressing addiction, both Mental Health and Addiction staff and the Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Council have acknowledged that harm reduction is a necessary part of the continuum of supports that the province seeks to provide. The Safe and Healthy Communities Committee met with the Chief of Staff for the Minister of Mental Health and Addiction, and the Acting Deputy Minister of Mental Health and Addiction to emphasize the importance of harm reduction, as well as inquire about funding for harm reduction initiatives and links between recovery communities and homelessness prevention. Given the high profile of mental health and addictions at this time, there will be ongoing opportunities to highlight this issue in meetings with the Minister; our 2023 election strategy; and our analysis of the 2023 Budget.