'We need more urgency': Edmontonians rally for more support in opioid crisis
'We need to start looking at it through a health lens, which it is, instead of a moral lens'
A drug overdose robbed Faye Gray of a daughter, and her five-year-old grandson of a mother.
Gray's daughter, Lindsey, 33, died in Nov. 2015 from a lethal dose of methamphetamine and fentanyl. She wasn't an "all-out addict," Gray says.
She'd been using drugs for only six weeks.
"She was my daughter but she was also my best friend," Gray said, holding a photo of her smiling daughter.
"You never get over it, there's no such thing as closure. You're sad every day, even though you smile, you're sad. At first I almost felt guilty for laughing because she wasn't with me."
Gray attended the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs rally in downtown Edmonton on Tuesday to demand the Canadian government revise its approach to the opioid and fentanyl crisis. Rallies were also held in six other Canadian cities.
- How decriminalizing drugs helped Portugal solve its overdose crisis
- Edmontonians join cross-country rallies urging governments to consult drug-users on fentanyl
Demonstrators called for more meaningful input from those most affected by drugs: users themselves, as well as frontline workers, allies, and families of those lost to the opioid crisis.
343 Albertans died from fentanyl in 2016
Earlier this month, the Alberta government announced its latest plan to tackle the crisis as new numbers showed 343 Albertans had died from fentanyl overdoses in 2016. Experts noted the total number of opioid deaths is even higher.
The province is making opioid antidote kits available to first-responders and the general public without prescriptions, increasing access to opioid drug treatment, updating standards around prescribing opiates and striving to open Alberta's first safe injection site in Edmonton by the end of the year.
But front-line workers and allies say more needs to be done, and soon.
Registered nurse Erica Schoen has worked in the needle exchange at Edmonton's Streetworks for the past six years. At the rally on Tuesday, she said stigma around drug use is one of the biggest barriers to preventing overdoses and creating the resources necessary to help addicts.
"I'm seeing a lot of loss and a lot of hopelessness and a lot of people confused that we aren't doing more. We need more urgency," Schoen said.
"The research is out and there's a lot of things that we could be doing to prevent these deaths. We just want to make a stand that we could be doing more. There is research and evidence supporting heroin-assisted therapy, just an increase of services and resources."
The research is out and there's a lot of things that we could be doing to prevent these deaths. We just want to make a stand that we could be doing more.- Erica Schoen , nurse
Shanell Twan, an outreach worker and board member of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs said a needle exchange program in prisons, drug legalization and housing focused on harm reduction are all urgently needed, with support from the federal government.
Twan said Canada should adopt an approach similar to Portugal. The country once had a heroin epidemic that affected around one per cent of its entire population. But when it decriminalized all illegal drugs in 2001, the crisis stabilized.
According to the 2016 United Nations World Drug report, Portugal has the one of the lowest fatal overdose rates in the world. In 2012, it had just 16 drug-related deaths in a country of 10.5 million.
"Legalizing drugs even across our country would take it out of the dealers' hands and lets give it to the doctors and put it in health perspective where we know people would then be able to have safe access to predictable medication as an alternative to illicit street drugs," Twan said.
Government not considering legalizing drugs
The Canadian government is not currently considering the legalization of all drugs, Health Canada spokesman André Gagnon said in an email.
The government is focused on a drug policy based on scientific evidence and a public health approach, he added. The Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy announced in December restores harm reduction as a core part of Canada's drug policy, he said.
On Feb.17, the government announced $65 million over five years to fight the opioid crisis and implement an Opioid Action Plan.
The Alberta government is now making opioid antidote kits available to first-responders and the general public without prescriptions, increasing access to opioid drug treatment, updating standards around prescribing opiates and striving to open Alberta's first safe injection site in Edmonton by the end of the year.
In addition, Alberta's associate health minister, Brandy Payne, is meeting with people "directly impacted" by addiction, press secretary Laura Ehrkamp said in an email.
- Improve opioid prescribing rules, training to curb fentanyl deaths, say advocates
- Alberta government under fire for response to record 343 fentanyl deaths
Twan says the government, and society, need to look beyond the stigma surrounding drug users to help curb the crisis.
"We need to acknowledge the fact that these are people and we need to provide healthcare services that are appropriate for this issue," she said. "We need to start looking at it through a health lens, which it is, instead of a moral lens, which has created so much chaos for us.
"People who use drugs are just that. People."
With files from Andrea Huncar