Alberta safe supply committee starts work

A committee examining how a safe drug supply could reduce deaths due to poisonings started its work on Tuesday with an argument that highlighted the ideological tensions over the issue. 

Committee of UCP and NDP MLAs must submit report by April 30

Patients receive intravenous doses of the painkiller hydromorphone, or Dilaudid, up to seven times a day as a replacement for street drugs. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

A committee examining how a safe drug supply could reduce deaths due to poisonings started its work on Tuesday with an argument that highlighted the ideological tensions over the issue. 

While the committee agreed on several issues, including a request to have Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw appear for a technical briefing, a disagreement erupted over the wording of a motion.

Lori Sigurdson, NDP MLA for Edmonton-Riverview, wanted the committee to start each meeting with a moment of reflection for people who died due to drug poisonings — 1,351 in 2020 and 1,372 in the first 10 months of 2021. 

Red Deer South UCP MLA Jason Stephan wanted to change the wording so that the moment of silence could focus on the "lives lost due to drug addiction."

"I believe that drug addiction is really what is the root cause of the deaths that are occurring," Stephan said. "But it's not only the physical loss of life but the destruction to communities, to families." 

Edmonton-City Centre NDP MLA David Shepherd said people with drug addictions aren't the only victims of drug poisonings. 

"A toxic supply can take the lives of those who don't have an addiction who may be casual users," he said. 

"I think acknowledging the role of drug poisoning in the context of a toxic supply is an important consideration when the purpose of this committee is to discuss the option of safe supply."

Committee members agreed to pass an amended motion to remember both groups of people in the moment of reflection. 

The disagreement, while minor, highlights the differences between the UCP MLAs that make up the majority of the committee, and the NDP minority. 

Pilot projects 

Safe supply is a controversial harm reduction policy that provides clean versions of drugs in an effort to keep people with addictions alive so they can seek treatment when they are willing and able. 

Many users die after unknowingly consuming drugs laced with fentanyl, carfentanil and other poisonous substances. 

The federal government has supported pilot projects in B.C., Ontario and New Brunswick for what it calls "safer supply" where drugs are prescribed to users who haven't responded to other treatment options for their addiction. 

The select special committee to examine safe supply was announced by Mike Ellis, associate minister for mental health and addictions, last month. The committee has a mandate to look at the benefits and consequences of safe supply and whether the policy can reduce fatal drug poisonings. 

The wording of the mandate put the term safe supply into quotation marks, a move the NDP said revealed the government's negative bias toward the policy, suggesting the outcome of the committee has already been determined. 

The current United Conservative government has made recovery a priority by opening and funding more addiction treatment beds, but critics say they have actively reduced access to harm reduction measures like supervised consumption sites.

Under the mandate, the committee is required to submit a report to the legislative assembly by April 30.


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