Alberta RCMP responded to twice as many suspected drug overdoses between January and November 2023 than in all of 2022. Of the 1026 suspected overdoses RCMP responded to so far this year, 517 were reported by just ten detachments, more than all provincial detachments combined in 2022, according to data from Alberta RCMP.
Data also suggests that fatal overdoses are happening more often. About a third of these suspected drug poisonings resulted in death, and many were related to the the practice of cutting fentanyl with other substances, an RCMP news release said. The unknown combination and potency of these mixtures sold as fentanyl can make a user’s normal dose more dangerous, and reduce the effectiveness of naloxone.
The communities with the highest total overdoses as recorded by the RCMP were Red Deer, Lloydminster, Parkland County, Fort McMurray, Strathcona County, Gleichen, Cochrane, Wetaskiwin, and Mascwacis. With the exceptions of the Hamlet of Gleichen and Mascwacis, these same communities also had the highest number of drug poisoning deaths responded to by Alberta RCMP.
“It’s really important to recognize that this crisis is spreading throughout every community in Alberta. There’s nowhere that’s immune to it,” said Euan Thomson, who leads Each+Every, a coalition of businesses advocating to reduce preventable drug poisoning deaths.
“Every single community has drug use. And that means every single community has unregulated drug use, which is really the root of the toxicity crisis here that RCMP is responding to, that EMS is responding to, and that frontline outreach workers are having to deal with.”
These statistics from the RCMP are only the tip of the iceberg for the toxic drug crisis in Alberta. As of September, 1,411 Albertans have died of drug poisonings in 2023, according to the province’s substance use surveillance system.
Along with an overall increase in drug poisonings, the rise in calls for service recorded by the RCMP is also tied to the strains being felt by other first responders. AHS EMS has been dispatched to nearly 9,000 opioid-related calls this year, roughly the same as the number of overdoses responded to by Edmonton firefighters in 2023.
Though fire or EMS might normally be dispatched for medical calls before RCMP, “it also depends on what is available, especially in rural areas,” said Cpl. Mathew Howell.
“Places that don’t necessarily have as many services––say not as many firefighters or they have volunteer firefighters––then RCMP is more likely to respond in those cases,” he said.
‘Complete failure’ of policy measures
The fact that the RCMP is responding to overdoses at such a high rate now indicates two things, Thomson said: “The complete failure of the policy measures that Alberta has taken over the last few years, really culminating in the greatest spike in overdose deaths in Alberta’s history over the last year. But also, just the degree to which these responses rely on on the first person on the scene to respond.”
In areas outside of urban centres, harm reduction outreach workers are “few and far between and vastly overburdened with the geography they have to cover,” Thomson said, while in Edmonton and Calgary there are dozens of teams effectively reversing overdoses each day.
People who use drugs in rural areas, where stigma around drug use runs especially deep, often use alone, which is the largest risk factor for overdose deaths. Reversing the trend of opioid-related deaths would require policies that address the reality of drug use and toxic supply in rural communities and services that aren’t limited to major service centres, he said.
“Greater access to regulated drug supply would be the number one, most immediate and most impactful way to address this. There’s very little of that, especially in rural centres. Right now, if you want to access regulated hydromorphone, or Dilaudid, in Alberta, you pretty much have to live in one of the major cities. And even then it’s very difficult.”
In 2022, the Government of Alberta changed rules for the province’s opioid dependency program (ODP), revoking the ability of health care professionals to prescribe or pharmacists to dispense high-potency opioids for treatment. These services are now restricted to ODP clinics, where patients sometimes have to return several times a day for doses, he said.
“It’s incredibly disruptive. And as a result, many people just can’t make it work. So they’re turning to the street supply. In rural areas, that’s made even more impossible because there’s just no access to carry away a supply,” Thomson said.
Fatal overdose calls take toll on officers and resources
The increased frequency of fatal drug overdose calls can also take a toll on individual RCMP members, Howell said.
“They’re coming in not only to another human being who passed away, but also in a manner that isn’t always going to be like, you know, they fell asleep and never woke up,” he said. “Every call like that they have to mentally gear up to be ready to respond to that.”
Police resources are also already stretched thin, Howell said, and the time it takes for an officer to properly do their job on the scene of an overdose means they’re less available to respond to other emergencies.
“The other officers who are on shift who might not be directly impacted by this call, are indirectly impacted because they have to respond to more calls per member at that point,” he said.
“One incident affects multiple people in multiple different ways. An it does add stress to the members as well, because once again, they are human and they are coming on the scene where another human being has passed away.”
Howell said the RCMP would like to see more people using whatever services are available to limit the harms associated with drug use, “be it supervised consumption sites, or services that will help them get rid of addiction,” or just help people be safer in their consumption if they’re not ready to quit.
“We would like to see more services that will be able to help people and hopefully take that pressure off all first responders: the RCMP, EMS, fire, other police services in Alberta . . . Any social endeavour that can help with regards to that is something we would also support.”
By Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Dec 31, 2023 at 16:14