Alberta's government is taking a controversial stance on addiction treatment as it ponders "compassionate" intervention that is "involuntary" and "mandatory" for drug users.
As first reported by The Globe and Mail, the UCP is considering legislation that overrides the consent of users by giving police, family or legal guardians sweeping rights to force them into treatment if they pose a risk to themselves or others.
Mental Health and Addiction Minister Nicholas Milliken said Wednesday that looking for "compassionate ways" to intervene where individuals are "in the throes of addiction" is part of his mandate, as Alberta Premier Danielle Smith disclosed last fall.
"We have situations where people are overdosing sometimes five-plus times a day. They're a harm to themselves, and they often harm the community as well. We need to find a way to ensure that those individuals get the help they need or want," he said.
More than 1,600 Albertans died from unintentional drug overdoses last year — a 12% decline from 2021 when 1,852 people died from a fatal overdose — but both figures are far above pre-pandemic levels.
On April 19, the province announced $17 million in funding for ongoing mental health and addiction issues. "We are a government that believes that everybody dealing with the addiction crisis should have the opportunity for treatment and recovery," added Milliken.
Of that amount, $6.3 million will go towards the downtown division for Edmonton police, offering voluntary mental health and addiction support to those in custody. The province also added another two paramedics to the northwest division.
"I'm working with many different ministries to look at ways to compassionately intervene to ensure those people do have the opportunity for treatment," continued Milliken. "Our government has committed to respond to these complex social issues in Alberta's urban centres."
However, Opposition leader Rachel Notley contends that forced treatment legislation would be too punitive on users.
"Imprisoning Albertans against their will for addiction treatment is doomed to failure, both from a treatment perspective and a legal one," she said. "Effective and lasting treatment meets people where they're at and supports them in taking a different path."
Notley "strongly" expects the courts to strike down an approach that forcibly confines Albertans not convicted of a crime.
Through these initiatives, a spokesperson for the ministry told Rebel News that the UCP "does not believe in criminalizing a healthcare issue."
Aitchison conveyed that Alberta is building a recovery-oriented addiction and mental health care system that takes a "fair, firm and compassionate approach to keep communities safe while treating addiction and mental health as healthcare issues."
In a statement to the publication, he referenced Alberta's work to establish more than 9,000 new publicly-funded addiction treatment spaces and eliminate user fees for residential addiction treatment to ensure all residents can access these life-saving services.
On April 14, the province also committed $5 million over three years to provide recovery-oriented health support to people in police custody and to support harm-reduction and recovery outreach teams.
The funding breakdown includes:
- $2.2 million for on-site healthcare practitioners and paramedics in the arrest processing unit;
- $1.8 million for crisis workers in Calgary's 911 Dispatch Centre;
- $1 million to expand HELP teams downtown;
- And $775,000 for facility upgrades in the APU.
The funding will support embedding a specialized health team within CPS to assess and support people detained under a public intoxication charge. It will also help the Digital Overdose Response System (DORS), which offers same-day treatment with the award-winning Virtual Opioid Dependency Program (VODP).