More than 1,400 drug poisoning deaths recorded in Alberta last year

More than 1,400 people in Alberta died of drug poisonings in 2022, according to the latest provincial data.

The Alberta substance use surveillance system shows 1,443 deaths between January and November last year, the third consecutive year where the count surpassed 1,000. Of these, 1,346 were attributed to opioids.

So far it remains lower than 2021, the deadliest year yet on record, when 1,842 people died from drug poisonings.

For Petra Schulz, co-founder of harm reduction advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm, the numbers are sobering. 

“If it gets a bit better from the worst day on record, that is no measure of success. That is just a measure of a slightly diminished failure,” she said. 

An older woman wearing glasses has a neautral expression while holding a picture frame of her son.
Petra Schulz is the founder of Moms Stop The Harm, a network that advocates for a harm reduction approach to the opioid crisis. Her 25-year old son, Danny Schulz, died after suffering an overdose in 2014. (Nola Keeler/CBC)

Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio, family physician and former co-chair of Edmonton’s opioid poisoning committee, cautions that the downward trend is still concerning given that the final numbers for 2022 have yet to be finalized as they are updated on a quarterly basis. 

“There’s always going to be a bit of a lag with the medical examiner’s office,” she said.

Salvalaggio said the overall decline should be viewed cautiously, comparing the 48 opioid-related fatalities in January 2020 to the 159 in January 2022.

“We’re still triple what we were in at the beginning of 2020, for numbers, so we’re nowhere near out of the woods.”

Government response 

Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the office of mental health and addictions, said in an emailed statement the government is “cautiously optimistic” about the continued downward trends since a peak in late 2021.

Aitchison also noted that opioid overdose deaths in Alberta were down 31 per cent in November 2022 compared to the same month in 2021.

He said hospitalizations and emergency department visits related to opioid addiction are at their lowest point since the start of the pandemic and have decreased 39 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively, since peaking in late 2021.

For 2021-22, the province provided over $35 million for support services — an increase of nearly 60 per cent compared to funding between 2018-19, according to Aitchison. 

Some harm reduction advocates have called for more supervised consumption sites to be made available beyond the eight sites that exist across the province. 

Community engagement is ongoing between Boyle Street Community Services and Edmonton’s Strathcona neighbourhood after the organization identified a need for a possible site. 

If the proposed site does end up moving forward, the Alberta government will be providing up to $2.15 million per year to support operations.

Lerena Greig, executive director of the support organization Parents Empowering Parents said strides have been made to address the situation.

“They’re the first provincial government that have a Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and are making investments in that area,” Greig said, referring to the organization having received government funding to put toward support programs for people and families struggling with addiction.

“Is it still our best? Maybe not, but it’s better than what we had.”

Systemic struggles

Judith Gale, leader of outreach group Bear Clan Beaver Hills House, said the core troubles leading to opioid poisonings are deeply-rooted.

“The number one cure, in my opinion, is to make sure that we house everybody, every human being first,” Gale said. 

“Once we’ve housed them, we can help them along the way to obtaining sobriety, if that’s what they choose.”

Salvalaggio said there needs to be meaningful action directed toward in-person supervised consumption and supported housing. This also means having a meaningful conversation around significant changes to drug policies, including decriminalization. 

“What it would look like to decriminalize, and in that way, destigmatize drug use, such that people feel like they are welcome to come forward and connect with people about health and social support.”

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