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More than 4 Albertans died — each and every day — from opioids in 2023

A Toxic Year Opioid Series Banner Alberta

The four people pictured above represent a typical day’s death toll from opioid poisonings in Alberta last year, the deadliest on record for the province.

The addictive drugs claimed the lives of at least 1,706 Albertans in 2023, according to new data just released by the province’s substance use surveillance system. That works out, on average, to more than four deaths each and every day.

The previous record was set in 2021, when 1,634 people died. (The province started collecting data in 2016.)

And the staggering toll for 2023 isn’t yet complete, as it takes months for many opioid deaths to be reported and included in the total. The current tally includes only known deaths from January to November, so the true number will climb even higher.

Numbers this large can mask the humanity behind them. Every single person who died was a complex individual, with their own struggles and stories and loved ones left behind.

Starting Monday, CBC Calgary will profile four of the Albertans who died in 2023. Together, these four stories represent a single day’s loss of life, out of 365 days last year.

On Monday: Stephen’s story. He died alone in his apartment after consuming methamphetamine contaminated with fentanyl. His family wonders whether he might still be here if he’d had access to a safer supply.

On Tuesday: Jordan’s story. She died of a fentanyl overdose at the age of 15 after battling addiction. Her father struggled to manage her addiction while navigating available youth supports in the province.

On Wednesday: Lisa’s story. She was a resident of Piikani Nation who overdosed in Lethbridge. Lisa’s family says her death is one of so many as the opioid crisis has claimed Indigenous lives at an alarming rate.

On Thursday: Chris’s story. He kept his struggle with addiction private for a long time and died in a public park. Drug deaths in public places used to be a rarity but have become increasingly common in Alberta.

Alberta breaking the record for annual opioid deaths follows a trend taking place across Canada and the United States. In late January, the British Columbia Coroners Service said that provincewide in 2023 there were more than 2,500 suspected illicit drug deaths, the highest annual number recorded. Saskatchewan is also staring down a record. 

The United States, meanwhile, saw more than 112,000 overdose deaths in a 12-month period for the first time in 2023, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Elaine Hyshka, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in health systems innovation at the University of Alberta School of Public Health, says the growing crisis has yet to be met with a policy response commensurate with the scale of the problem.

“Show me a jurisdiction that has invested in this issue meaningfully,” she said. 

Hyshka noted the loss of life from opioid poisonings in recent years is on par with the death toll from COVID-19.

“That’s astonishing. And it kind of shows you that dramatic difference in our societal response. With COVID-19, it was all hands on deck. We fundamentally shifted and changed society to address a very serious public health concern,” Hyshka said. 

“This is an equally serious public health concern that is contributing to so many potential years of life lost.”

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