Deaths by drug poisoning in Alberta for 2021 are the highest on record, reaching numbers that one harm reduction advocate says are worse than feared.
This week the provincial government updated its substance use surveillance data, adding 156 drug poisoning fatalities in September and 153 in October, bringing the total for the first 10 months of 2021 to 1,372.
"I expected it to be bad but this is just staggering," said Petra Schulz, co-founder of the organization Moms Stop The Harm.
In 2020 — previously the deadliest year for drug poisoning — a total of 1,351 Albertans died.
The province also released a new report on the disproportionate effects drug poisoning is having on First Nations people in the province. Though they account for six per cent of the population, First Nations people represented 22 per cent of all opioid poisoning deaths in 2020, up from 14 per cent in 2016.
In a news release announcing the numbers Wednesday, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Mike Ellis said Alberta is not alone in seeing opioid overdoses spike.
"This trend is being seen in other jurisdictions, including British Columbia where 201 suspected overdose deaths were recorded in October alone," Ellis said.
Ellis said there is no one one solution to the crisis but pointed to Alberta's efforts to build a "comprehensive recovery-oriented system of care" as the way forward.
Alberta opened new treatment beds and approved public funding of injectable opioid addiction treatment among other measures as part of its strategy.
But it also closed North America's busiest supervised consumption site last year and shuttered a site at Boyle Street Community Services — opting to make a nearby site operate 24 hours a day instead.
Schulz said the province's strategy amounts to "waging a war against harm reduction."
"Every action they have taken, it's the same thing over and over again. They expand treatment," Schulz said.
"But not everybody is ready, willing and able to enter treatment, but still they have the right to live. And that is where the government absolutely fails. They don't invest in measures to keep people alive."
Moms Stop the Harm and the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society are in the midst of a lawsuit against the province over changes to supervised consumption site regulations.
An emergency injunction application to prevent the province from requiring site staff to ask clients for ID beginning on Jan. 31 is currently before a judge in the Court of Queen's Bench.
'You just don't know what you're getting'
"The thing is, all substances right now are being tainted with fentanyl and fentanyl-analogues," said Samantha Ginter, the team lead for the Red Deer chapter of Alberta Alliance Who Educates and Advocates Responsibly (AAWEAR).
"You just don't know what you're getting. It is really scary."
The peer-led, harm reduction focused group does street level outreach and advocacy to teach the non-drug using population about harm reduction.
Ginter echoed Schulz's call for a greater focus on harm reduction, which she said is a stepping stone to recovery.
She said education of non-drug users about substance use is an important part of addressing the stigma that drives substance users to use alone and hesitate to reach out for support.
"As a community we need to come together, we need to educate ourselves and others on the scope of what substance use is and looks like and understand that these are still human beings," Ginter said.
Ginter encouraged all Albertans to pick up a Naloxone kit at their local pharmacy. Naloxone temporarily reverses the effects of overdose. Anyone administering Naloxone should also call 911.