Edmonton's worsening opioid crisis prompts renewed calls for action

A spike of overdoses in Edmonton has prompted renewed calls for action to combat the opioid crisis.

‘We have people dying on our sidewalks'

Alberta Health Services is issuing a warning about the dangers of illegal drugs after EMS responded to 55 opioid-related calls in the Edmonton Zone, in two days from May 31 – June 1. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

A spike of overdoses in Edmonton has prompted renewed calls for action to combat the opioid crisis.

A news release from Alberta Health Services on Thursday said that emergency services responded to 55 opioid-related calls in the Edmonton zone in just two days, May 31 and June 1. 

It followed the suspected overdose deaths of three men in a downtown park on May 21.

This week's alert from AHS said there was no specific information about the drugs involved.

On Twitter, the executive director of the Downtown Business Association, Puneeta McBryan, wrote "the drug supply is quite literally poison."

"I had to say something out of frustration," McBryan told CBC News. She said for an issue like this, there needs to be a critical mass of public attention.

"Sometimes that's what we need to get to before our government takes the action that's needed."

McBryan believes it's an issue everyone should be concerned about.

"This isn't a drug user problem, this isn't a poor people problem, this is all of our problem right now," she said. "To say that it's reached an alarming and critical point is an understatement."

Identifying the problems is one thing but McBryan admits finding solutions is more of a challenge.

"It's so tricky to talk about solutions with this issue," she said, noting the stigma associated with drug use.

McBryan thinks the pandemic is also exacerbating the situation.

"Right now, indoor public spaces don't really exist to a large degree, so with safe consumption sites being closed there's very, very few available " she said.

McBryan takes issue with the suggestion that safe injection sites cause harm to communities.

"The problem doesn't go away just because you take away those consumption sites, in fact it gets significantly worse because then we have people dying on our sidewalks."

Elliot Tanti with Boyle Street Community Services is seeing that firsthand. He said on Wednesday staff responded to 10 overdoses before noon.

"I used to feel like if we were responding to one or two a day we were in a really serious situation."

Staff at Boyle Street Community Services say they responded to ten overdoses before noon on Wednesday. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Tanti agrees with McBryan that the drugs currently on the streets are powerful and dangerous but there are other factors.

"What also can't be lost in this is that there is significant trauma and an impact related to the discovery in Kamloops," he said, referring to a former residential school in B.C where the bodies of 215 children were recently found.

Tanti said right now they're focused on the current crisis and emergency but he'd like to see additional resources for prevention.

He believes it's also important to keep the conversation going to draw attention among Edmontonians and those in power.

"We've had some really promising conversations with the provincial government, with the minister's office and with the city of Edmonton," he said. 

Mayor Don Iveson also thinks support from the province is crucial.

"I do think that this crisis would be a good moment for the government of Alberta to pivot and double down on what they've already put forward for addictions and mental health supports," he said. 

That includes safe consumption sites and, more importantly, supportive housing with wrap around addiction and mental health services, Iveson said.

McBryan said she knows there are government officials working on the problem but stresses its urgency. 

"This is immediate because if we're talking about recovery … this part of the crisis, in my view at this moment, way outnumbers the risk that we're facing with COVID."