Addiction treatment is not a neutral field of medicine. It’s highly politicized, with conservatives tending to ignore systemic problems, blame users and focus on treatment and abstinence, and liberals tending to accept people the way they are and focus on measures to keep them alive.
Both sides can argue problems with the other’s positions.
I have known people who died after being coerced into treatment — and one person whose family was gaslit by the facility they attended immediately following their death. Admittedly, I hold biases informed by devastating outcomes.
I am not an addiction expert. However, I don’t believe many so-called addiction experts base their knowledge in strong evidence. A PhD in biology taught me to sniff out pseudoscience, and it is rife in abstinence-only treatment. This holds particularly true in Alberta, which has become an epicentre of drug policy misinformation led by Premier Danielle Smith’s chief of staff, Marshall Smith.
There are many frequent examples of pseudoscience.
Studies the government has relied on show survivor bias, showcasing only people who survive treatment while looking past the many thousands of participants who die. They fail to consider the material conditions that can give rise to substance use, such as abuse or homelessness, instead favouring over-intellectualization of “recovery capital."
Instead they focus on a misplaced obsession with diversion of prescribed drugs into “the community” and increasingly flirt with forced treatment as a means to solve houselessness, while ignoring the extreme risk experienced by people forced into treatment. They generally refuse to acknowledge that most people use drugs in one form or another and “abstinence” is a tenuous idea infused with arbitrary moralism and racism.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we have become ensnared in debates over pseudoscience while more than 30,000 people in Canada have died largely because the illegal drug supply remains unregulated.
It’s also easy to forget that there was no drug poisoning crisis before prohibition began 115 years ago (primarily owing to political desires for control of racialized communities).
Drugs are neutral in all of this: some people benefit from them while others are harmed, but the most dangerous thing we can do to our friends and family who use is to drive their sale and consumption underground and into the shadows.
Meanwhile, less privileged people trying to access services like detox (medicalized withdrawal) encounter significant barriers. These can include requiring a certain period of "stability" on methadone or other therapies, excluding people using these therapies altogether, or enormous waitlists. This excludes people with greater challenges while favouring those with resources.
It seems that despite the professions of easy treatment access, the privatized Alberta model is built for those with money.
Why protest the Alberta Recovery Conference?
Those are among the reasons I and others decided to protest the Alberta Recovery Conference in February.
The ideas promoted at these kinds of conferences are central to the violence of North America’s drug toxicity crisis. Attracting police chiefs, addiction treatment "experts" and high-profile conservative politicians with vested interests in the status quo, these events reinforce the institutional legitimacy holding back meaningful policy change.
Organized by the director of community development at Last Door Recovery Society, which for 13 years contracted an alleged abuser of women enrolled in a neighbouring treatment facility, the Recovery Conferences draw considerable resources. Top sponsors included Alberta Health Services, the Alberta government, Calgary Homeless Foundation and Canadian Addiction Counsellors Certification Federation.
The Alberta government’s sole-source contract given to Last Door Recovery Society totals $1.2 million for the implementation of an app that serves as a vehicle to usher more people into addiction treatment across Alberta.
Meanwhile, connections are being uncovered between the key players of these conferences and far-right activists such as Aaron Gunn, the Pacific Prosperity Network and Take Back Alberta. Unsurprisingly, our protest was flagged by the Freedom Convoy network, who planned a counter-protest.
The abstinence-only movement always carried a whiff of far-right ideology, but now it’s an unmistakable stench.
The abuse allegations and concerning allegiances encapsulate the desperate need for oversight within this unregulated and privatized field of pseudo-health care. In June 2022, two dozen organizations highlighted 50 missing data points needed to evaluate Alberta’s abstinence-oriented framework to address drug poisoning.
With an election drawing near, it’s time for the Alberta government to share this data.