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In Alberta, 2023 was officially the deadliest year from opioid overdoses on record

More Albertans died from opioid overdoses last year than any other year on record.

CBC News reported earlier this year that 2023 was expected to be the deadliest year from drug poisonings — and now, provincial numbers confirm it.

Newly released data on the province’s substance use surveillance system shows opioids claimed the lives of 1,827 people in 2023.

The previous record was set in 2021, when 1,639 people died.

Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, says these are more than just numbers. Her son died from an accidental fentanyl overdose a decade ago.

“I see their grieving mothers and families rather than the numbers. But what I also see is a catastrophic policy failure on behalf of our province,” said Schulz.

A black circular kit with two needles packed up in clear plastic
A naloxone kit, which can reverse an opioid overdose, is shown. There were 1,867 opioid-related deaths last year, an increase from 1,528 the year before. (The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government says its committed to a recovery-oriented approach to addiction.

Schulz says she supports evidence-based, voluntary treatment — but that there are major gaps in the province’s system.

“We have to keep people alive and that’s where the province of Alberta is failing. They’re failing to keep people alive long enough to ever reach that point where they could go into treatment,” she said.

A spokesperson for Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Dan Williams says they send condolences to all families, loved ones and communities of those affected by the opioid crisis.

“While the amount of people losing their lives to addiction is concerning, we are cautiously optimistic about the downward trend in the first two months of 2024. February of this year shows a 33 per cent decrease in fatalities compared to February of last year and is the lowest number of all substance fatalities in nearly four years,” said Hunter Barill, Williams’ press secretary.

In the first two months of 2024, 237 Albertans fatally overdosed on toxic drugs.

Addictions specialist Dr. Monty Ghosh says it’s too early to be a trend, but it is a good sign — one he’s surprised by.

“Things are moving in the right direction. So hopefully this continues to be the case, even though we had a disastrous 2023,” said Ghosh.

What the data says

The new data depicts important pieces of the evolving crisis in Alberta, says Ghosh. 

For example, he points to data from Red Deer’s overdose prevention site where, in the last quarter of 2023, compared with the previous quarter, there was a spike in drug related adverse events that required staff to intervene. These interventions included providing supportive care, administering oxygen or naloxone, or in some cases an EMS response.

Ghosh says that’s important because Red Deer city council is asking the province to get rid of the site by the end of next year.

“We know that these services do save lives, and so if the municipality was trying to shut down this essential service, there could be a spike of overdose deaths in the Red Deer region,” he said.

Dr. Monty Gosh is posing for the camera, wearing a dark sweater over a white shirt and tie with his arms crossed over his chest.
Dr. Monty Ghosh is an addiction and internal medicine specialist who practises in both Edmonton and Calgary. (S. Monty Ghosh)

Schulz with Moms Stop the Harm notes an increase in the percentage of drug poisoning deaths among women. In 2023, that number hit 31.6 per cent — the first time it has surpassed 30 per cent on record.

“There should be people conducting data analysis and [looking] at what this data is telling us. Why is this trend occurring? Why are women suddenly at greater risk?” said Schulz.

To prevent further deaths, Schulz says the province should invest in harm reduction and drug checking, which Ghosh agrees with.

Ghosh says the province also needs to improve its education and messaging around harm reduction, and thinks it should explore Portugal-style drug decriminalization to better treat addiction as the health issue it is.

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