The candidates to lead the United Conservative Party and become Alberta’s next premier appear likely to maintain the province’s approach to the opioid crisis, after the current government spent years shifting its focus from harm reduction to treatment and recovery.
More than 7,300 Albertans have died by unintentional drug overdoses since 2016, the majority linked to opioids such as fentanyl. The crisis grew worse during the COVID-19 pandemic as drug supply chains were severed, access to life-saving services was decreased, and isolation pushed people to use alone.
Overdose deaths peaked at the end of last year, with a record 174 people dying per month in November and December, and have since fallen. Fatal overdoses were below 100 in June for the first time in more than two years but remain far above prepandemic levels.
But the issue has barely factored into the UCP race, with almost none of the candidates even mentioning the opioid crisis in their platforms and few offering any substantial comment when asked.
Premier Jason Kenney’s government has largely focused on recovery-oriented services such as residential treatment facilities, detox beds and opioid withdrawal supports. Mr. Kenney has been critical of certain harm-reduction programs, such as supervised consumption sites, which he has said “facilitate addiction,” although the government continues to fund those sites.
Danielle Smith, the former leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Party and the perceived front-runner in the race, declined to comment on her plans to tackle the crisis, which she does not mention on her campaign website.
Brian Jean, who co-founded the UCP, said in a statement that there need to be greater supports available but “we can’t undertake policies that make entire communities victims to the consequences of others’ addictions.”
He said harm-reduction supports such as supervised consumption sites should not “destroy residential and vibrant commercial neighbourhoods.” Mr. Jean proposes that Alberta explore the use of underutilized health buildings to house these services.
“We need to have an understanding with addicts that balances our desire to help them and protect them, their desire to be safe and be at reduced risk of death, and the community’s needs to be safe,” the statement said.
Rebecca Schulz, former minister for children’s services, said in an interview that she supports the recovery-focused work done so far by the UCP but said there’s “no simple fix.”
She said her priority would be to better integrate society support services with mental-health and addictions supports and pinpoint unique resources needed for different communities. She did not provide specifics but said she would have open dialogues with non-profits, municipalities and Indigenous groups.
“We do need to focus on recovery,” she said. “We absolutely need to continue down that path.”
She said safe supply, in which the government would provide pharmaceutical-grade alternatives to street drugs, and decriminalization, which is being tried in neighbouring British Columbia through a federal exemption, have not been raised as priorities by Albertans.
Former finance minister Travis Toews said in a statement that he will continue walking the path taken by the UCP to support a recovery-oriented system of care. He pointed to the current government’s record, including the government’s addition of 8,000 publicly funded treatment spaces, the elimination of daily user fees for residential treatment, and building new recovery communities. He did not provide specifics about any new policies.
Rajan Sawhney mentions the issues on her campaign website – the only candidate to do so – with a bullet point that promises to “invest in access to mental-health and addictions and community supports.”
Ms. Sawhney, who previously held positions as the minister of transportation and, separately, the minister of community and social services, said in an interview that Mr. Kenney’s ideology was a barrier to ensuring adequate resources are available for everyone. While still supportive of a recovery focus, Ms. Sawhney said it “won’t solve everyone’s problems.”
If elected, she said she would accelerate the work to find a suitable replacement for Calgary’s only supervised consumption site, which has been on the chopping block since May, 2021. The UCP have yet to finalize a plan to move the services, made more difficult after they announced this month an overdose-prevention site at the Drop-In Centre wouldn’t move forward. Ms. Sawhney said she would also revisit the closing of Edmonton’s Boyle Street supervised consumption site.
“My perspective is a little bit different from the other leadership candidates and I think it truly is devoid of ideology of any kind. It’s just literally, like, we need to do better,” she said.
Expanding detox treatment spaces was also in her plan and she added that she would need to see more evidence on the merit of safe supply and decriminalization before considering them.
Leela Aheer, the former minister of culture, multiculturalism and the status of women who was removed from cabinet after criticizing Mr. Kenney, also went in a different direction from the current UCP strategy. She said she regrets how politicized the issue has become, with politicians of all stripes pitting harm reduction against recovery services, and wants to build from the ground up.
“We need to actually collaborate together to figure out what’s going on. If you look at best practices and other provinces and other areas, nobody’s nailing this right,” Ms. Aheer said. “I’ve been part of too many of those situations where we’re yelling into the ether, and not creating solutions for the problems. I’m not going to make this a divisive political situation. These are people’s lives.”
Todd Loewen, who sits as an independent MLA after being ousted from the UCP caucus, also toed the UCP line. He said his focus would be on recovery with attention given to low- or no-cost private treatment facilities. Mr. Loewen also said he would explore tax incentives to encourage donations to these places and work on public information campaigns to increase awareness of Alberta’s addictions-related services.
He was critical of harm-reduction services, arguing they facilitate drug use. He said supervised drug-use sites, for example, would need to focus on rehabilitation to operate. He was dismissive of safe supply and decriminalization.