Addressing the Overdose Epidemic in Alberta: Most party leaders underachieve
April 3, 2019: When the next provincial government takes office, it must take immediate and decisive action to address the overdose epidemic claiming two Albertans’ lives every day. While this pace of preventable death seems to some like a new normal, each loss rocks families, friends and communities and takes an unforgiving toll on Alberta’s economy. Addressing this unprecedented public health emergency must be a priority for our next Premier.
Two Alberta-based community groups – Change the Face of Addiction and Moms Stop The Harm – invited all provincial party leaders to complete a brief online questionnaire. The questionnaire contained four questions about leaders’ proposals across what are described as the “four pillars” of substance use policy: prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction. We also assessed the extent to which leaders have demonstrated a personal commitment to protecting all Albertans affected.
As of April 2, 2019, only David Khan of the Alberta Liberal Party responded directly. We therefore collected the remaining leaders’ available policy documents, public announcements and commentary. With the assistance of provincial content area experts acting as concerned citizens, we graded each leader’s approach.
This exercise leaves us deeply concerned. Most leaders do not describe action that is proportional to the magnitude and urgency of this crisis, and some leaders endorse policy directions that are more likely to harm than help. For example, increasing drug investigation and enforcement may be politically appealing, but evidence shows these measures increase stigma, exacerbate social inequities and discrimination, and increase harms of substance use. In the meantime, the threat of punishment does little if anything to prevent substance use, and it increases violence in the drug trade.
Some leaders propose addiction treatments that research has proven relatively ineffective for opioid addiction. For example, mandatory detox services, abstinence-based residential programs, and “faith-based” treatment approaches do not achieve optimal health results. In some cases, candidates endorsed interventions that could increase the risk of overdose death. Besides being ineffective, some of the suggested treatments could not be scaled to the extent required to meet population demand. While more money for treatment is desperately needed, we need to invest in treatments that are shown to work. At least equally concerning is some leaders’ view that life-saving harm reduction services that have finally been established in Alberta should meet additional bureaucratic requirements that would at least delay their expansion if not cause their closure. Having reviewed party leaders’ positions, we fear – as do public health experts nationwide – that the progress made towards evidence-based services like supervised consumption could be undone following this month’s election.
Albertans should expect that in a public health emergency, our leaders will perform at an A-plus level, acting rapidly, resolutely, and consistently with the best available evidence to protect human life. This issue requires critical attention in the lead up to the election, and it appears our Premier-hopefuls have some schooling to do before April 16th.
Background: Change the Face of Addiction and Moms Stop The Harm are two Alberta-based community groups made up of citizens who became advocates after they witnessed the lack of supports and services for family members experiencing addiction. Many members of these organizations have had loved ones die from overdose.