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Rights + Justice

Rising Drug Deaths Discredit the ‘Alberta Model’

But the UCP’s ideological approach is unlikely to change despite the lives lost.

David Climenhaga 29 Jun 2023Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter at @djclimenhaga.

In a better world, the conveniently timed post-election release of statistics showing Alberta had the deadliest month on record in April for fatal drug poisonings would have discredited the “Alberta Model” for treating addiction. 

Tragically, that is unlikely to happen.

Alberta’s United Conservative Party is addicted to inflicting ideological solutions on real world problems, so the probability is high no one in Premier Danielle Smith’s government will be tempted to reassess an approach that is clearly shaping up as a deadly failure. 

Statistics released by Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance System this week showed that 179 human beings died from drug overdoses in Alberta in April. 

News media reported that was a 46-per-cent increase from April 2022 and brought the total number of deaths so far this year to 613. This is dramatically higher than the rate of overdose deaths before the pandemic — 51 in April 2019. 

It was certainly no coincidence that Smith waited until after the May 29 provincial election to report the bad news. “It is utterly unconscionable that she was lying about her success while six Albertans were dying every single day,” Edmonton-Riverview MLA Lori Sigurdson said in an NDP news release. 

But whatever the statistics say, it is all but guaranteed the UCP will double down on its focus on drug abstinence, coerced treatment and blaming the victims of drug addiction, and continue to oppose harm-reduction measures, based on sometimes spurious and usually ideological grounds. 

Many more Albertans are likely to die as a result.

This is not to say that other jurisdictions that have taken a different approach to Alberta’s unforgiving application of social conservative ideology to a generational tragedy do not have high death rates from opioid-based street drugs as well. 

The toll continues to be high in British Columbia, where the provincial government has worked with Ottawa to decriminalize small amounts of drugs and has a much more open attitude toward safe consumption clinics than Alberta. However, in May there were signs B.C.’s strategy was working to reduce deaths, with a 16-per-cent decrease from May 2022 and a 19-per-cent decrease from the previous month. 

Factors cited by B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, CTV reported, included safe consumption clinics, overdose prevention sites and safer supply in some communities.

But there is no question the catastrophe plaguing every jurisdiction in North America is not going to go away anytime soon. 

It should be obvious, though, that Alberta’s ideologically driven refusal to counter safe consumption efforts, decriminalization, safe supply and other harm-mitigation measures is bound to have tragic consequences. 

The Smith government’s punitive war-on-drugs approach — proven ineffective for half a century — is deeply entrenched in the United Conservative Party’s political DNA. 

Consider the “joint statement” issued Monday by Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis and Mental Health and Addiction Minister Dan Williams, supposedly to coincide with the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking but more likely intended as a rhetorical antidote to the bad news contained in the latest drug-death statistics.

“The criminal actions of drug traffickers are abhorrent and will not be tolerated by Alberta’s government,” blustered Ellis, a former Calgary police officer, in the press release. “We must have zero tolerance for the manufacturing, trafficking and dealing of these deadly and dangerous drugs.”

This belligerent and futile boilerplate could have come right out of the mouth of Richard Nixon, the U.S. president who launched the war on drugs in 1971. We all know how that worked out. 

While much of the rest of the world edges toward the promising Portugal Model, Alberta is stuck in the 1970s with decades of failure and tragedy ahead. This is not reassuring. 

But the ideology of abstinence appeals to segments of the UCP’s social conservative base, even as many of the working people the party purports to champion succumb to opioid-related deaths, legal and illegal. 

As for Williams, apparently appointed to a health-related portfolio on the strength of his history of anti-abortion activism and best known for swilling illicit beer in the legislature, he promised Albertans “the opportunity to pursue recovery,” but not necessarily the opportunity to survive long enough to take advantage of it. 

In the end, this is just more evidence of the Smith government doubling down on the abstinence and recovery model that may not work, but delivers big money for the UCP’s friends and family in the recovery business.

Naturally, it also appeals to the far right’s fondness for violent rhetoric, coercive responses and simplistic solutions that privilege property and profit over humanity.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Alberta

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