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Recovery-based Alberta drug-addiction treatment model limits options: critic

Paul knows addiction.

He spent the last 23 years fighting his reliance on alcohol, crack cocaine and benzodiazepines.

“To be so consumed by it, you’ll sacrifice anything: your children, your sleep, your food,” said Paul, with whom CTV News Edmonton agreed to withhold his last name for this story.

“Everything.”

He faced an ultimatum from his parents, who forced him into Red Deer’s 75-bed recovery community last year. It’s one of 11 addiction treatment facilities the province has promised to build.

“Basically, they told me, ‘If you don’t go to rehab right now, we’re going to take your kids,” Paul said.

The Red Deer facility, which has been operating at capacity since opening nearly a year ago, is a long-term, abstinence-based in-patient program for substance-use disorders that accommodates stays between six months and one year, says Ben Broger, its clinical director.

The province said Monday that since opening, Alberta’s two recovery communities have treated about 150 people but were unable to confirm how long the waitlist is for them.

Dan Williams, Alberta’s minister of mental health and addiction, defends the recovery community model despite deaths from all substances increasing by 130 per cent since the governing UCP party took office in 2019.

“It’s important to note that whether you’re looking at pharmaceutically prescribed opioids, deaths related to those are down; alcohol … those deaths are down; deaths related to cocaine is down; methamphetamine (number of deaths) is down,” Williams told reporters last week.

“So we have to also recognize that addiction to opioids and the crisis we see, especially in the public display in the streets, is something we have to work on, but we also recognize that addiction is broader than that and that we are seeing strides forward.”

Yet, non-prescribed opioid deaths made up 90 per cent of fatal overdoses last year, an increase of 17 per cent from 2022 compared to the first 11 months of 2023 alone.

“If your only criticism is, ‘I don’t want you to do recovery, and you have to do more work taking money out of the recovery system, and put it into facilitating addiction, then I don’t think think they are talking to addicts,” Williams told CTV News Edmonton.

Dr. Jennifer Jackson, an assistant professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Calgary and a registered nurse, told CTV News Edmonton there is evidence the province’s approach is insufficient, as sobriety works for just nine per cent of the population.

“It’s evident to me that if we have record levels of Albertans dying, we should not continue with the policy that has been in place while that is happening,” Jackson said.

She wants the province to focus more on harm-reduction measures such as supervised consumption sites, free drug testing and increased access to opioid treatment, services she says are under attack.

“We have lots of addictions strategies that we know would be helpful for folks,” Jackson said.

“We have made-in-Alberta research from myself and many colleagues that can say there are lots of cheap, accessible options that we could create right now. The idea that we’re going to get rid of many of the options available, and we’re doubling down on only having inpatient treatment, is extremely concerning because it will cost a lot of money, and it’s not going to work.”

Williams says the nine remaining recovery centres will be built by spring 2025, offering 2,000 more treatment spaces per year.  

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