City suffers highest drug poisoning death toll ever

·3 min read

Medicine Hat’s drug poisoning deaths have reached an all-time high since the beginning of 2021, and the year’s not over yet.

Data from Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance System shows as of August, 23 people died by drug poisoning in the city. The previous year’s total was 15 deaths.

Medicine Hat’s chief of police, Mike Worden, is concerned about the increase.

“I’ve continued to see the number of overdose deaths – and not just overdose deaths, but the number of calls we go to where people have overdosed rise,” he told the News. “There are times where you may see small spikes in (drug poisoning deaths) but you see through that data, that it has been consistent throughout the year.”

Data shows fentanyl as the primary substance resulting in drug poising deaths in Medicine Hat, with methamphetamine as the secondary. It also shows men are more commonly victims, but are not the only gender affected. Individuals between 20 and 50 years of age constitute the highest rate of drug poisoning deaths.

“It’s occurring throughout the city; it’s occurring at hotels, in residences and on the streets. Some people think it’s just homeless people that have drug addiction problems; that’s not it … It’s not just one small segment of our community … our entire community is going through this struggle right now,” said Worden.

“It’s one of those things where if you don’t pay attention to it or you don’t notice it, it’s going to get worse.”

Jaime Rogers, homeless and housing development manager at Medicine Hat Community Housing Society, hopes Hatters acknowledge drug issues by continuing to provide support to affected individuals rather than focusing on their drug dependency.

“They are members of our community first and foremost,” she told the News. “We don’t know the trauma they’ve experienced. We don’t know if they had choices to make. We really just don’t know. Especially in the last couple years, we don’t know what the impact has been on people’s mental health and well being. Oftentimes, when we see severe addiction we also see severe mental health issues as well.”

Coralee Rahn, acting director of Addiction and Mental Health Community Services in Medicine Hat, agrees mental health plays a large role in addiction.

“Addictions don’t exist in isolation,” she said, stressing no one particular cause.

“Definitely the pandemic has really challenged all Albertans – everybody across the globe. We know there’s things like social isolation, there’s employment loses or employment difficulties, financial problems. We know with children there was the instability of school and the shift to online school. So, I think there’s been lots of things that have impacted individuals.”

She wants the community to know there are services available for individuals struggling with drug dependency, such as information and education programs, outreach services, community clinics and outpatient services and a voluntary four-week residential treatment program through Addictions and Mental Health Community Services, as well as other local organizations.

Worden hopes by bringing attention to the problem will entice local organizations, services and programs to come together to generate possible solutions.

“We as a city and a community need to get together … There’s no way that one organization (can solve this issue) on their own. You’ll need conversations about housing, addition issues, mental health issues, homelessness, law enforcement, drug diversion courts, all those different things. You need to get people into some of these programs to try to help them recover. Otherwise, people will just continue in that cycle … and these drug deaths are going to continue,” he said.

KENDALL KING, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News

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