Fatal drug poisonings top 1,000 as Alberta on track for deadliest year on record

More than 1,000 people died from poisonings between January and August this year, according to new data from the Alberta substance use surveillance system. That’s nearly two hundred fatalities more than over the same period in 2020, the worst year yet on record.

20 per cent of deaths occurred in public places

There were more than 100 fatal drug poisonings in each of the first eight months of 2021, with a high of 142 in January. (CBC)

Alberta is on track to have the deadliest year on record for fatal drug poisonings.

There were 1,026 drug poisoning deaths between January and August this year, according to new data from the Alberta substance use surveillance system. A total of 856 deaths were reported over the same period in 2020, the worst single year yet on record. 

While deaths increased precipitously last year in the spring, this year reported deaths every month have consistently topped 100.

In the second quarter of 2021, about 20 per cent of opioid poisoning deaths occurred in public places. A majority happened in private residences — 52 per cent where the deceased lived permanently.

"We have to recognize that addiction doesn't discriminate," said Lerena Greig, executive director of the support organization Parents Empowering Parents. 

"It's not a respecter of persons of demographics, of social status, of ethnicity. And I think that it's happening in suburbia really needs to be an eye-opening experience."

Greig said a more toxic drug supply is among the drivers for the spike. She said the stigma attached to drug use needs to be broken to provide much-needed support.

"We have to kind of — through compassionate eyes — keep an eye on our neighbours," she said.

The provincial government recently released a mobile app aimed to help Albertans who use alone. The Digital Overdose Response System, available in Edmonton and Calgary, connects users with support staff who can call emergency responders if they suspect an overdose.

Petra Schulz, co-founder of the organization Moms Stop the Harm, said she cannot recommend the app because it is still in its early stages. Alternatives she offered are the Lifeguard and Brave apps.

Schulz is critical of the provincial government's response to the drug poisoning crisis, saying it has undermined harm reduction.

"We have four people dying every day in this province," she said. "They talk a lot about recovery but you can't recover if you're dead."

Continuum of care

Eric Engler, press secretary for associate minister of mental health and addiction Mike Ellis, said the minister has been clear there is no one solution to the addiction crisis.

"Alberta's government is focused on building a recovery-oriented continuum of care that spans prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery," he said in an emailed statement. 

"We continue to support services that reduce harm as part of a comprehensive system."

The government has promised to publicly fund 4,000 new annual treatment spaces and eliminate user fees for those spaces.

There are six permanent and mobile supervised consumption sites in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie. The province is planning to start another in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Edmonton. 

Last year, the province closed North America's busiest supervised consumption service — in Lethbridge — following an audit. 

A site that operated for 12 hours a day at Boyle Street Community Services in downtown Edmonton was also shuttered while the nearby George Spady began operating its supervised consumption services 24 hours.

The government cut funding for an injectable opioid agonist treatment program in 2020. After a lawsuit was filed, patients with the last-resort program were transferred to another, similar harm-reduction program under a two-year grant. But new intakes were halted.

Lori Sigurdson, NDP critic for the file, said the United Conservative Party has a bias against the harm reduction model that is costing lives.

She has proposed an emergency action plan to include expanding supervised consumption services, offering a safe supply of alternatives to toxic street drugs, and increasing access to drug testing.

"These are some of the things that we need to do, and we need to do them right now."