In the past couple of years, the growing opioid crisis has grabbed headlines across the country as the death toll continues to climb. A recent Canadian Press story reported that Canadians are the second highest per-capita consumers of opioids in the world, after their U.S. counterparts. But while opioid use is declining in the U.S., in Canada it’s rising.
It’s a problem that hits close to home. There were 349 fentanyl reported overdose deaths in Alberta in 2016. That’s up from 257 such deaths in 2015, and almost triple the 117 fentanyl deaths in 2014. In the first six weeks of 2017, 51 fentanyl deaths were reported, a pace that, if maintained throughout the year, would see yet another annual increase.
Next door, B.C. reported a whopping 914 drug overdose deaths in 2016, a significant increase over the 510 deaths from the previous year.
Lethbridge isn’t immune to the problem. Lethbridge Police Chief Rob Davis discussed the issue in his April 17 Police Beat column in the Lethbridge Herald, and on Monday, a local coalition on opioid abuse gave an update to members of city council. Dr. Karin Goodison, Medical Officer of Health for AHS South Zone, told council, “This is truly an epidemic.”
Alberta Health Services statistics indicate the rate of fentanyl deaths in the province has climbed from 2.9 per 100,000 in 2014 to 6.1 in 2015, and to 8.1 in 2016.
“In South Zone we’re also seeing that impact and it’s a big problem,” said Goodison.
The issue doesn’t only affect the drug users. It’s creating an extra burden on Lethbridge Fire/EMS crews which are called upon to respond to narcotics overdose calls. Often they’re also called on to pick up needles disposed of in the community, and the proliferation of drug labs is creating an additional risk for EMS workers.
The drug problem leads to increased crime, and Mayor Chris Spearman noted residents are complaining that the city isn’t doing enough to combat crime and drug use. But he adds, “it’s a more complex issue” than people think.
Indeed it is. It’s going to take the entire community to deal with it, and Lethbridge is trying to tackle it from every angle. The opioid abuse coalition includes representatives from Alberta Health Services, Addictions and Mental Health, Lethbridge Police Service, Lethbridge Fire/EMS, and ARCHES, which provides outreach education and harm-reduction services for people who use drugs.
Lethbridge Police Insp. Tom Ascroft suggested a safe consumption site for drug users, while it would be controversial, would get the problem “off the streets, get it out of the library, get it out of the malls, get the needle debris out of the bathrooms…”
The opioid crisis has no easy solutions and won’t be solved any time soon. Goodison said the problem will require a community-wide effort — “Our awareness, our education, and looking at how we can all work together on this, because it’s not a problem that’s going to be solved all within health or policing… It’s going to take the entire community.”
And it’s a problem that need immediate action.