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Reports of crystal meth use in Alberta nearly triple in five years, AHS says

As the province grapples with fentanyl, another dangerous street drug is tightening its grip; Alberta Health Services has seen the number of people reporting crystal methamphetamine use nearly triple in the past five years.

Dangerous street drug associated with spike in crime, as nearly 7,500 Albertans report using meth in past year

Crystal methamphetamine, more commonly known as meth, can trigger hallucinations and paranoia. (Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

While fentanyl continues to make headlines, Alberta Health Services has seen the number of people reporting crystal methamphetamine use nearly triple in the past five years.

Those numbers haven't been as high since the 1990s, said Barry Andres, executive director of addiction and mental health for Alberta Health Services.

"We're not, at this point, quite sure where this is going to go," Andres said. "We're tracking this, gaining an understanding of what it means, looking at our colleagues in other provinces in terms of how it has trended."

In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, 7,475 people who sought AHS addiction treatment services reported they had used meth within the previous 12 months.

Five years ago, 2,522 people reported having used the drug.

The totals don't necessarily reflect an increase in the number of drug users, Andres said.

"It's more a trend in the drug of choice, I would suggest," he said.

Certain drugs can spike in popularity if they become cheaper or more readily available, Andres said. The AHS numbers don't reflect the full scope of the problem, he said.

'Concerning' spike in ancillary crime

More than one-third of the AHS reports last year came from Edmonton.

Edmonton police said meth is prevalent in the city but declined to comment further.

Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams seized 4,324 grams of meth during the 2016-2017 reporting period.

More than 60 per cent of those seizures happened in Medicine Hat, where police say the drug is more prevalent than fentanyl.

'The greatest concern for us locally is all the ancillary crime that's caused by the  meth  use and abuse.' - Staff Sgt. Cory Both, Medicine Hat Police Service

"It's disturbing," said Staff Sgt. Cory Both, the officer in charge of the ALERT organized crime team in Medicine Hat.

"The greatest concern for us locally is all the ancillary crime that's caused by the meth use and abuse here," he said.

"(With) fentanyl and carfentanil, there's a higher risk to the user to either die or overdose. But with meth, it's more of a harm to the community in general, as far as property theft and robberies and other ancillary crimes."

Property offences in the city, including break and enters and thefts, have nearly doubled in the past five years.

"Basically, anything that can be sold or stolen or bartered to get meth and fuel their addictions," Both said.

The drug can trigger hallucinations, paranoia and aggression, which Both said can make users dangerous to the public.

"They're more emboldened in their crime," he said. "They're less inhibited, they're more paranoid, more aggressive, they're committing crimes fairly blatantly and in circumstances where most criminals wouldn't even think about taking chances."

Annual meth seizures by ALERT have been steadily increasing, Both said.

Officers confiscated less than 400 grams of the drug a decade ago. Since then, the numbers have been steadily rising, with some dips or spikes.

During the 2015-16 reporting period, for example, concentrated efforts by ALERT led to busts and seizures totalling nearly 23,000 grams.

"The numbers reflect so significantly because we are doing our job and we're making seizures and making arrests," Both said.

Meth users who get arrested can be sent to mandatory treatment programs designed to break the cycle of addiction and crime.

"It is encouraging to develop these alternate forms of sanctions other than just charging people and sending them to jail," Both said. "We are working towards that and we do advocate for that."

Breaking the cycle

Drug treatment courts across Alberta offer alternatives to jail or prison.

Pamela Spurvey faced a three- to four-year sentence after she was arrested for trafficking meth in Camrose, Alta., in 2006.

She opted instead for treatment through the Edmonton Drug Court.

After more than a year of excruciating withdrawal, counseling and intensive workshops, she graduated from the program. Spurvey now works as a mentor with the dug court.

"I kind of see my past as a gift today to help others," she said. 

'I've become an advocate for people, you know, a voice for people until they can find their own. That's what drug court gave me, they gave me my voice back.' - Pamela Spurvey, Edmonton Drug Court

"I've become an advocate for people, you know, a voice for people until they can find their own.

"That's what drug court gave me, they gave me my voice back."

The arrest 10 years ago was a painful turning point, Spurvey said. She lost her job, home and, for a time, custody of her children.

"I was a really big part of the damage that was being caused in that community by selling drugs," she said.

Spurvey said she sold meth to fuel a three-year addiction that helped numb the pain from physical and mental abuse she suffered as a child.

"That was the only drug I chose to use when I did pick it up," she said.

"It does something to your brain. It does something that takes you to a different place, it sends you into a different euphoria. You just see things differently. I would stay up for days."

Days without sleep were followed by paranoia and visions of "shadow people" that would stalk her in the street, Spurvey said.

"I think it would have caused my death, or really would have caused me being out there in the street and not even knowing who I am anymore."

The drug of choice

Grace Froese, director of treatment for the Edmonton Drug Court, said clients fighting meth addiction are most common in the program.

"We are seeing a lot of fentanyl use for sure, but methamphetamines seem to be the drug of choice," Froese said. 

"It can be a very quick addiction. And once they get entrenched in it, it just seems to take a hold on them and they have a really hard time coming down from the crystal meth use."

To be effective, Froese said, treatment needs to be long-term and intensive. Some users choose prison over treatment.

"Once they get hooked on crystal meth, they become someone that they never were before," she said. "It takes them a while to get back to the person they were."

In the past decade, nearly 400 applicants have been accepted into the Edmonton Drug Court recovery and reintegration program.

More than 100 clients have graduated.

About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.