Families Outside Alberta’s Big Cities Can’t Access Support for Drugs and Addictions
Advocates and experts say the UCP government is leaving people struggling with addictions ‘out in the cold’
A mother from Airdrie, Alberta says there is a lack of accessible support for people who use drugs province-wide, contrary to the UCP leader Danielle Smith’s claims of increased funding for mental health and addictions.
Shawna Taylor, who created a support group in Airdrie called Here Together, says her daughter has been using drugs for eight years.
“The government and people who are supporting the government’s stance on different things are saying if we push these people into a space where we can control what they do, then everything will get better and crime will get better and it’s such a fallacy,” Taylor told PressProgress.
Taylor says that despite the UCP government’s recent announcement of increased funding for treatment, treatment isn’t readily accessible and comes with many stipulations.
“This Alberta model that they claim, where do they go?” Taylor said. “I can’t call anybody and get my daughter into treatment.”
“It’s really easy to go on the news and be like, ‘you can get into treatment and it’s fast, and we’ve got empty beds,’ but they have a whole bunch of requirements for those beds.”
At the same time, the number of supervised consumption sites in the province are dwindling.
“Safe consumption sites are closed, or there’s one to satisfy the over a million people population. We have no safe consumption sites in Airdrie. We have no supports in Airdrie,” Taylor said.
There are currently three safe consumption sites in Edmonton, and only one each in Calgary, Grande Prairie, Red Deer and Lethbridge.
Taylor says she once drove her daughter to the hospital in Airdrie while she was having an overdose in the back of her truck. They were turned away and had to seek care in Calgary.
“The doctors there told me that if I ever had to go to a small town, to go to the parking lot of the hospital and call 911 because that’s the only way in some of these small towns that an ambulance would come and help my daughter,” Taylor said.
The “Alberta Model” in practice
Dr. Jennifer Jackson, an assistant professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Calgary, says the UCP government’s approach to drug policy has made it harder to support people struggling with addictions in the province.
“What we’ve seen is an emphasis on recovery-focused services that have left a lot of people out in the cold. And it’s meant that services like supervised consumption sites, overdose prevention sites and other harm reduction measures—they’ve either been limited severely or outright eliminated,” Jackson told PressProgress.
“We need to rapidly expand access to supervised consumption and that’s even within big cities, a single site is not enough.”
In addition to safe consumption sites, Dr. Jackson says the number of detox facilities has also gone down in the province and accessing agonist medication like methadone, which prevents a person from going into withdrawal, has become more difficult.
“Even within the opioid dependency program, we’ve also seen there’s restrictions on what kind of agonist medications patients can access,” Jackson explained.
“Rather than get them from a family doctor, now you can only get them from an opioid dependency clinic or facility, and there’s fewer of those.”
Jackson adds there’s only one facility that provides supervised detox in Calgary.
“We don’t have adequate detox services. In Calgary, there’s only one facility that provides supervised detox, it is geographically it’s hard to access, there’s not great transit links, and they only have a limited number of beds.”
“If you want to access that facility, you have to line up at seven o’clock in the morning and they take person number one, two, three and four, and they only have four beds, so if you’re person number five, you don’t receive the service. And if you’re ready to access detox at 3 PM, you’re going have to get there for 7 AM the next day.”
Barriers to treatment
Taylor says she has recently had conversations with her daughter about returning to treatment, but the facility she previously attended in the past now has a six-week wait.
“It scares me every day that my daughter is not going to make it. Usually we talk about once a week, and if she’s made it through the week, that’s a huge thing,” Taylor said.
She also says there is a lack of support for people once they get out of treatment
“As soon as she’s done, they just let them go. There’s no supports for the family,” Taylor stressed. “There’s no support for the person who uses drugs or has substance use disorder, like where do they go to live? How do they get support? How do they get treatment after?”
Dr. Jackson agrees this is a huge piece missing from Alberta’s continuum of care
“Leaving a residential treatment facility is also a very vulnerable time, because people have had a measure of detox. If they relapse, which is quite common and part of treating addiction as a chronic illness— if they relapse, then often what a person will do is go back to using the same amount that they were using before treatments.”
“Our current system requires that people get better on a standardized timeline, which human beings are not standardized,” Jackson noted “People might get 30 days paid by the government in treatment. I know some people who have said that their recovery took a year, and it was only because their family has significant personal wealth that they were able to complete that treatment.”
Dr. Jackson adds that meaningfully addressing mental health and addiction in the province must occur at a systemic and structural level.
“A lot of the issues we’re having in Alberta are system related, we know from research, and from two decades of harm reduction, we know what a lot of solutions and options can be,” said Jackson.
“What we’re seeing is that they’re not being effectively integrated here in Alberta.”
Taylor says that she hopes her daughter’s story, and the experiences of so many other Albertans, won’t keep being ignored.
“I rarely see any change from the people who can make the change,” Taylor said. “Until the politicians pay attention to us, nothing’s going to change. And how many people do you have to talk to and meet and tell them all these things that you know will work, and then three more of my daughter’s friends die.”
“People are dying at unfathomable rates.”
In 2022, 1,630 people died from drug poisonings in Alberta.
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