Calgary's drug court needs more money, mayor to tell feds and province

City council will ask the federal and provincial governments to put more money into the Calgary drug treatment court. The court is an alternative justice program for people suffering drug addictions.

Provincial and federal funding for the court was slashed 2 years ago

Mayor Naheed Nenshi will be sending a letter to both the federal and provincial governments, asking them to put more money into an alternative justice program helping people with addictions and keeping them from re-offending. (David Bell/CBC)

City council is going to ask the federal and provincial governments to put more money into the Calgary drug treatment court.

The court is an alternative justice venue for people suffering drug addictions who break the law.

Rather than simply sentencing and imprisoning offenders, the court ensures people undergo treatment for their underlying problems. Officials also work with offenders and their families to change their behaviour.

The CEO of the Calgary Drug Treatment Court Society says more than 50 per cent of its offenders' cases are connected to opioids. (Steve Heap/Shutterstock)

Governments cut funding for program

However, the federal and provincial governments have reduced their funding for the Calgary program.

The city provided some seed money for the court since it started 2007 but that support ended this year.

Coun. Druh Farrell told council's intergovernmental affairs committee on Thursday that the city must lobby the other levels of government to put more money into the program because this is not the city's responsibility.

Nearly 2,500 people died in Canada from suspected overdoses last year. (Canadian Press)

"We need them to step up. We have an opioid crisis that's growing and we need to look at every possible tool including the Calgary drug court," said Farrell.

City will lobby other governments

The committee voted to have Mayor Naheed Nenshi send a letter to both the federal and provincial governments, asking them to put more money into the treatment court.

Nenshi said he will gladly send a letter of support to the federal and provincial governments to lobby on behalf of the court.

"As part of our overall drug strategy, we have to work on prevention, on treatment, on harm reduction and on enforcement," said Nenshi.

"Incarcerating somebody not only doesn't help them get better, but also costs way, way more than some of the alternative treatments." 

Farrell says the program has proven its worth because people who do not re-offend result in less of a drain on the regular court system as well as the police and health systems.

"It changes lives and it doesn't just change the lives of the person going through the system. It brings families together," said Farrell.

People going through the court are subject to regular drug testing and there's zero tolerance for those who don't abide by their conditions.

The court helps about 25 offenders a year. More than 70 per cent of the people who go through the court have stayed out of any further trouble with the law.

Society raises money for court

Arla Liska, CEO of the Calgary Drug Treatment Court Society, said they try to raise money privately for the court's operation.

But greater government support would allow the society to focus more on its core responsibilities — getting treatment for the offenders who plead guilty and go through the drug treatment court process.

She said they'd like to help more people, especially since more people are abusing opioid drugs.

In 2016, the Alberta government announced a $30-million budget to deal with the skyrocketing numbers of deaths caused by overdoses from fentanyl and other opioids. (CBC)

A couple of years ago, opioids were connected to about 20 per cent of their offenders' cases. Now, she said that number is over 50 per cent.

"We would do well to be serving more like 40 people [a year] at this point," said Liska. "We need to do a better job of meeting demand."

The drug treatment court receives $346,000 per year from the federal and provincial governments. Prior to 2015, the court was getting $640,000 in annual funding.

As a result of budget cuts, Liska said some staff were laid off, which meant fewer offenders could be directed through the drug treatment court.

About the Author

Scott Dippel

Politics Reporter

Scott Dippel has been at CBC News for more than two decades across four provinces. His roles have included legislative reporter, news reader, assignment editor and national reporter. When not at Calgary's City Hall, it's still all politics, all the time.