In a tweet about Alberta’s addiction and mental health plan by UCP Leader Danielle Smith posted on Feb. 5, the then-premier said that the government has increased “funding and support for those who need it.”
The focus on addiction and mental health resources has been a contentious topic in Alberta as the province responds to the opioid crisis. The topic will no doubt see more scrutiny this month as part of the election.
Alberta’s deadliest year on record was 2021, with 1,626 people dying from drug poisoning.
Now, according to the most updated provincial data, 1,498 people died from drug poisoning in Alberta in 2022.
The Alberta government’s addiction and mental health plan offers a recovery-oriented model that invests in more treatment spaces. Currently, they have added approximately 7,700 detox spaces and approximately 2,742 residential recovery spaces.
Smith is correct when she says that UCP increased the provincial budget for mental health and addiction.
Budget 2023 includes $155 million over three years for recovery-based initiatives, such as treatment facilities.
In the 2023 budget address, the government announced that the budget provides for three new addiction recovery facilities this year – two in Northern Alberta and one in Central Alberta.
The majority of the government’s spending is allocated to addictions treatment and recovery measures. With more than $132 million allocated to support for over 600 recovery beds throughout Alberta, spending has increased by roughly $47.9 million from what was forecasted in 2022-23.
Additionally, $30.4 million is being spent on “initiatives that reduce harm,” which is an increase of $410,000 from the 2022-23 forecast, but down from the $35.5 million spent in 2021-22.
The UCP’s 2023 provincial budget highlights also include $34 million more for mental health and addiction treatment within correctional services for recovery programs for inmates in jail or prison.
But even with increased financial resources dedicated to Alberta’s addiction plan, some wonder if the recovery-oriented approach will actually work.
Earlier this year, the government announced that Alberta Health Services (AHS) would take over the Turning Point supervised consumption site (SCS) and transition it to a mobile service. The SCS had been operating in Red Deer since 2018.
According to Turning Point, the SCS was used 38,094 times and administered 1,500 suspected overdose reversals in 2022.
Focusing on this recovery-based system has led the government to close various supervised consumption sites and plans to increase police presence in Edmonton and Calgary to deter illegal activity. Meanwhile, neighbouring province B.C. has opted to take a different approach to addiction by decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs.
Dr. Monty Ghosh, an addiction specialist and physician, wonders if the UCP's approach will really work even with all the extra spending. Ghosh says it's time to think about decriminalizing drugs.
The University of Calgary researcher focuses on addiction medicine, harm reduction, and policy building.
He believes that decriminalization is a valid means of supporting people struggling with addiction and mental health, and is something the province could benefit from exploring.
“I'm not saying that we necessarily have to [adopt] the B.C. model, but any form of decriminalization is better than what we have right now and needs to be explored,” says Ghosh.
People in British Columbia can now possess small amounts of illicit drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine.
At the sixth annual Recovery Capital Conference held on Feb. 21, Smith announced that the government would be increasing the funding for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction to a “record-breaking” $275 million this year.
So far, the 2022 Annual Health Report shows an increase of 237 facility-beds dedicated to addiction and mental health from the previous year.
This increase in facility beds is something that Ghosh says is a positive initiative.
“The treatment facilities are a good idea overall, as long as they incorporate evidence-based treatments and practices, and as long as they cater towards a really struggling population.”
According to Ghosh, people experiencing homelessness could benefit from a treatment facility, but oftentimes this vulnerable community needs harm reduction before recovery, and support upon leaving treatment facilities.
Mental health and addiction is not a simple issue, which is why the addictions physician suggests that complex struggles require complex care.
Ghosh says that support for people struggling with substance use disorder “is not a one size fits all” solution.
“I think what we really need in our system is balance,” he says.
“We need multiple options for as many clients as possible. Some clients are in a space where they just need harm reduction, and that's what we need to provide. Some clients are in a space where they no longer want harm reduction, they want treatment and recovery, and therefore we need to be providing that for them.”
The premier’s February tweet responds to a post about the newly built recovery facility in Red Deer.
Costing the province a total of $20 million, the Red Deer Recovery Community is the first completed facility of various recovery centres proposed in Alberta. The facility contains 75 beds – 50 for men and 25 for women.
In an email statement before the election from Minister Nicholas Milliken’s press secretary, Colin Aitchison, said Alberta’s government is taking a “fair, firm and compassionate approach to keeping communities safe while treating addiction and mental health as healthcare issues.”
Aitchison’s statement explains that the Red Deer Recovery Community is a “holistic, long-term residential addiction facility,” and the “first of its kind in Alberta.”
The Red Deer Recovery Community’s website self-identifies as a “government-funded, privately-run addiction treatment centre,” and its services are only available to “those with a valid Albertan address and/or provincial health card.”
Aitchison’s email statement also mentions there will be efforts put towards new publicly funded addiction treatment spaces that eliminate user fees for residential addiction treatment, but for low-income Albertans, the cost of residential treatment was already covered by the province.
This email also notes the government's work towards “building nine recovery communities across the province,” but this claim may be misleading.
Currently, the Red Deer Recovery Community is the only finished new recovery facility in Alberta.
According to the Government of Alberta’s major project index, two others are currently under construction – one in Lethbridge and one in Gunn – while three others have been proposed with no scheduled construction.
Budget 2023 accounts for the potential construction of three more recovery facilities over the next few years, “two in Northern Alberta and one in Central Alberta,” bringing the grand total to nine.
“We will continue to invest in these initiatives to support all Albertans in their pursuit of recovery,” says Aitchison.
Still unknown is the date the Red Deer Recovery Community will be fully operational and accepting clients, but Aitchison says it will be “in the near future.”