By Lethbridge Herald on December 29, 2023.
Chris Hibbard – LETHBRIDGE HERALD – Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The dangers of opioids cannot be understated. Reports continue on statistics and trends related to street-drugs, opioid dependency, overdosing and deaths.
Since 2016, Alberta Health Services has been tracking the usage of these drugs via the Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System, most recently updated in December of 2023.
The results, input into this system from frontline workers around the province, are freely available to any interested party, publicly posted online via healthanalytics.alberta.ca
Some general statistics from the last year see that 7,500 people were enrolled in some form of opioid dependency program in 2023. These individuals are trying to deal with their problem medically, getting off killer street drugs and using substances like methadone or suboxone to help them while they heal.
In Lethbridge however, nearly 140 individuals have died from opioid use. Nearly 90 per cent of those were found to have fentanyl, methamphetamine, or carfentanil in their bloodstreams, and many had some combination of those three.
In comparison to previous years, 32 died from opioids in 2018 and 48 died in 2020.
Since 2016, more than 7,000 people have died in Alberta from opioid overdoses. Those who are at highest risk of dying an opioid-related death are 68 per cent male. The majority of deaths occur in public places or in private residences. The average age of those who die is between 25-44, with the peak being ages 35-39.
The surveillance system reports that of those 140 who died in Lethbridge, nearly 80 of them had seen a health care provider of some kind within 30 days of their deaths.
EMS services were called out to respond to 351 opioid-related events in 2023, at an average of about 12 calls a week.
Province-wide, emergency rooms in Alberta saw nearly 12,000 visits related to opioids in 2023, and nearly 4,000 of these required overnight hospitalizations.
In the past year the Alberta drug supply has gotten even more deadly, with other chemical agents added into an already fatal mix, according to at least one news report.
Animal tranquilizers have been getting “cut” with opioids like fentanyl, meaning when an individual overdoses, that overdose can likely be reversed via emergency kits like Nalaxone, but their body, and even their breathing, may still be paralyzed and what may have been an life saved by first responders, may now be irreversible.
A 2023 report compiled for the Stanford Network On Addictions Policy was published earlier this year. This report, entitled “Canada’s Health Crisis: Profiling Opioid Addiction in Alberta & British Columbia,” reveals a few more facts.
British Columbia leads the country in opioid-related death with Alberta coming in second. The report states that “between them, B.C. and Alberta accounted for a quarter of Canada’s population, but almost half (49 per cent) of Canada’s opioid-overdose deaths.”
The report also states that in the years 2020 and 2021, “opioids caused nearly half as many deaths as COVID-19 over the same period.
The report states that First Nations people in these two provinces are 4.9 times more likely to die from opioids than non-First Nations people, despite the fact that First Nations people comprise less than four per cent of Canada’s population.
According to that same report, Fentanyl is still the major cause of death.
“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine… fentanyl has played an important role in the opioid crisis because it is significantly cheaper to produce per dose and much harder to detect illicit supply routes. This makes them more widespread in illicit drug markets and harder for law enforcement to trace and detect, and it is also more likely that a dose will be too potent and cause people who use these drugs to overdose.”
That report, which is available to read entirely online, also details issues related to crime prevention and how difficult the opioid epidemic is to fight via law enforcement methods, stating that illicit black markets linked to organized crime, and the low costs to produce the drugs and low costs to purchase them, are “incentivizers”, meaning buying and selling them is worth the risk of incarceration since it’s so profitable with such high margins.
Different provinces have taken different approaches to dealing with the opioid epidemic, ranging from supervised consumption sites to the decriminalization of possession of small quantities of street drugs.