Premier rejects harm reduction model during funding announcement for new addiction recovery centres

·3 min read

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney challenged the harm reduction model of addiction treatment on Saturday, during a $10-million funding announcement for two new recovery centres in the southern part of the province.

The premier said the investment, which will bring 125 addiction treatment beds to Lethbridge County and the Blood Tribe First Nation, was part of a plan to build a province-wide continuum of care from addiction prevention, to treatment, to recovery.

The recovery communities are two of five being built across the province, as part of a long-term treatment model that "[encourages] participants to examine their personal behaviour to help them become more pro-social and positively engaged citizens … based on honesty, taking responsibility, hard work, and willingness to learn," according to a government news release.

When asked by a reporter about the recent defunding of a supervised consumption site and the province's controversial report that focused on negative community impacts of supervised consumption sites, rather than lives saved, the premier did not mince words.

"Handing somebody who's deep in addiction a needle is not a continuum of care. I don't even think it's terribly compassionate simply to facilitate an addiction rather than to offer a full spectrum of services for recovery and lifetime treatment," Kenney said.

"If you think the harm reduction obsession is really successful when it comes to preserving human lives, then I invite you to take a stroll down East Hastings on the downtown east side of Vancouver."

Harm reduction is a method that aims to reduce fatality rates and the harm associated with drug use, while acknowledging that abstinence is not always a realistic goal. Alberta Health Services harm reduction programs include supervised consumption services and providing naloxone kits.

Last week, the province cut off funding to charitable organization ARCHES, which runs Lethbridge's only supervised consumption site, one of the busiest sites in the country, after an audit found $1.6 million of unaccounted for public money.

A report last year found the province's sites, including ARCHES, have a 100 per cent success rate at reversing overdoses. The sites also provide other services, like emergency medical care, education on the harms of drug use, and referrals to other social services like counselling.

The government also cut funding for a last-resort opioid treatment program earlier this year.

Critics have expressed fears that removing funding is an ideological response against the harm reduction model, saying the province could instead simply take over the privately run service — an accusation Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addiction, has dismissed.

Kenney described the findings of the ARCHES audit as "disgusting," on Saturday, saying that the staff were "exploiting addicts."

He said the new recovery community model will mean the province is no longer focused on what he described as a single-minded, harm reduction approach, which he said brings a negative impact to local neighbourhoods.

The new facilities, which are expected to create 50 jobs, are scheduled to open in early 2021.

In the first three months of 2020, 142 people in the province died of apparent accidental opioid overdoses — an average of 1.6 deaths each day.