NDP MLAs quit legislative committee tasked with studying opioid safe supply programs

Alberta NDP MLAs are quitting a legislative committee struck to examine whether safe supply programs could reduce drug poisoning deaths in Alberta.

Government MLAs call Opposition move a political stunt

NDP MLA Lori Sigurdson says she and her Opposition colleagues refuse to participate in a legislative committee studying the safe supply of opioids. (Scott Neufeld/CBC )

Alberta NDP MLAs are quitting a legislative committee struck to examine whether safe supply programs could reduce drug poisoning deaths in Alberta.

The United Conservative Party caucus called the move a "political stunt" and said the committee's work will continue without Opposition members.

At a news conference on Friday, NDP MLA Lori Sigurdson said the committee is "rigged" to reach a predetermined conclusion about whether safe supply could do more harm than good in Alberta. 

"We refuse to take any further part in this," she said, along with colleagues David Shepherd, Kathleen Ganley and Janis Irwin.

Late last year, the legislature agreed to strike the committee to examine the concept of "safe supply," in which opioids are prescribed to people struggling with addiction, and for whom other treatments have often been ineffective.

The Opposition said they lost patience when they saw the list of 21 presenters government MLAs intend to invite.

Shepherd said government members "scoured the world" for people opposed to the practice.

The list includes American author Michael Shellenberger, who wrote the book San FranSicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.

The committee heard on Thursday Alberta Health lacks any in-house expertise on safe supply, and had asked Simon Fraser University psychologist and professor Julian Somers to compile current research on the issue. Somers has previously publicly criticized safe supply.

Shepherd said the committee is a "political circus" inappropriate for a health crisis that's killing thousands of Albertans.

In safe supply programs, doctors prescribe participants otherwise-illegal opioid drugs to prevent them from consuming potentially more toxic substances sold on the street. (George Frey/Reuters)

In the first 10 months of 2021, 1,247 Albertans died from opioid poisonings, making it the deadliest year on record, with two months still to be tallied.

"This is something that needs to be taken seriously," Shepherd said. "And unfortunately this is not something that we see happening with this committee and we do not want to validate it with our presence."

The Opposition members proposed six presenters, including advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm and the Alberta Medical Association.

In a Friday afternoon statement, the United Conservative Party caucus said the committee will continue to meet and will invite presenters suggested by the Opposition. They also said the NDP could have proposed more participants.

UCP MLA and committee spokesperson Mickey Amery said members want to hear from a range of experts.

Alberta legislature library staff were unable to find a past example where Opposition members had quit an all-party committee.

Gillian Kolla, a post-doctoral fellow with the University of Victoria's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, said it is "striking" that the guest list is missing anyone who participated, worked on or researched an existing Canadian safe supply program.

"You're getting a very, very biased view by excluding the people who have essentially the most experience providing these services and conducting research around them," she said.

Kolla and her collaborators' research has found participants in Ontario and B.C. programs say the services have saved their lives, prevented drug poisonings, and connected them with more health-care and social services.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.