Alberta government expands Edmonton medical detox beds, adds naloxone pilot for overdoses

The Alberta government is injecting $3.6 million two initiatives they hope will help prevent a troubling surge of opioid overdoses in Edmonton.

Critics fear the moves won't be enough to prevent deaths

Additional access to supervised consumption sites is not part of the Alberta government's immediate response to an increase in opioid overdoses. Critics say this is a deadly oversight. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government is injecting $3.6 million two initiatives they hope will help prevent a troubling surge of opioid overdoses in Edmonton.

Although some agencies said they appreciate the moves, critics say they're inadequate to make a dent in the growing rates of opioid poisoning deaths in the province.

Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan said Edmonton's George Spady Society will be the first place in the province to offer doses of nasally administered naloxone. The drug can help resuscitate someone experiencing an overdose, buying time to get medical attention.

The $1.5 million spend will buy 7,500 doses and training and distribution. The pilot program may later expand to other locations, and may move beyond Edmonton after a year-long trial.

The government will also spend $2.1 million over three years to fund 35 medical detox beds at the Spady centre. Eight of the beds are new, and 27 of the beds are being upgraded to offer clients pharmaceutical options to manage withdrawal symptoms.

Luan acknowledged these steps alone won't resolve the crisis

"Is this all it takes? I'd say, no," he said. "But we have to get started. We have to demonstrate our concrete steps toward our continuum of care model."

The province tallied 346 people who died from opioid poisoning during the first three months of 2021. It's the highest number and rate of such deaths for the first quarter of any year since Alberta began tracking this information.

Luan said the COVID-19 pandemic has led to overdose deaths climbing everywhere.

Late last month, people in Edmonton's inner city grieved the deaths of three men who died together in a park after suspected overdoses. Alberta Health Services has also warned of a recent spike in overdose calls.

University of Alberta public health Prof. Elaine Hyshka, who studies addiction policy, says the government is failing to spend on choices that would have the most impact.

Street-involved people with addictions need longer-term supportive housing, not short-term detox beds, she said. Access to supervised consumption sites and a safe supply of drugs would keep more people alive, she said.

Injectable naloxone is also more affordable, she said. More funding and better co-ordination between agencies would make a bigger difference, she said.

"We're not seeing investments in the right places, and that is why people continue to die and it's extremely, honestly, really difficult to watch," she said.

New supervised consumption site rules

Supervised consumption services in Alberta are also slated for changes as the government aims to run smaller sites in more spread out locations in conjunction with other services.

A new set of operating rules for the sites requires them to have groups nearby agree to a "good neighbourhood" plan, have police approve some emergency response plans and ask clients to present their Alberta health cards.

Critics say these are deterrents that will scare some people away from using the sites for fear they will be reported to the police for drug possession.

Hyshka co-authored a study showing two-thirds of users surveyed said they would avoid a safe consumption site that required they show identification.

Luan said clients will not be required to show their health card to receive services, but employees will have to work with people who lack health cards to help them apply. 

It will allow health-care workers to better track and treat patients, he said. Luan said the new standards are needed because existing services are "chaotic."

NDP addictions critic Lori Sigurdson said the change could potentially jeopardize workers' abilities to build trusting relationships with clients.

"We know that a lot of these people are very vulnerable, and if you start asking them a lot of questions, they might not come back," she said.


Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca