The Alberta Model

The Alberta Recovery Model is based on the belief that recovery from addiction is possible, and everyone should be supported and face as few barriers as possible when they pursue recovery. Pictured: Alberta Premier Danielle Smith. Photo Credit: Danielle Smith/X. 

One of the issues that was discussed at last week’s annual conference of the Canada Strong and Free Network (CSFN) was the terrible situation faced by addicts in Canada and the various approaches to policies to alleviate this serious problem. There have always been issues around addiction in society, but they have become much worse in recent years because of the availability of more potent drugs at lower cost. In particular, opioid use has become a huge problem which worsened during the pandemic. This is by no means a uniquely Canadian problem as most countries are facing similar crises. 

In Canada and around the world there have been variations on two very different approaches to deal with this issue. One approach, which is typically referred to as harm reduction, is focussed on providing a “safe supply” of drugs to addicted individuals as a means of replacing street drugs. Street drugs frequently contain harmful substances and/or fatal doses of drugs such as the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which can be deadly in very small quantities. The other problem with street drugs is that no one really knows exactly what they are consuming and how much. The other approach is to focus on treatment and recovery so that addicts can rid themselves of their addiction and live a decent life. Both approaches have their challenges. 

The safe supply/harm reduction approach was undoubtedly well-intended, but it has turned out to be a disaster. Governments who had bought into the safe supply policy distributed free supplies of hydromorphone, which is a powerful opioid that is used in most safe supply jurisdictions, to replace more dangerous street drugs of questionable composition. It turned out that the hydromorphone did not give people the same high that street drugs did, so addicts started to trade off their government-supplied “clean” drugs for stronger and more dangerous street drugs. This ended up having the result of even more people addicted to opioids of one kind or another, and no improvement in overdose numbers. 

The reaction to this finding was surprising. With journalists such as Adam Zivo of the National Post publishing articles on this unfortunate and unanticipated side-effect of governments’ safe supply programs, proponents of safe supply fought back by denying what was really happening and punishing any health care professionals who dared criticize safe supply. Advocates of safe supply tended to be leftists who were keen to reject any difference of opinion. Addiction experts who saw the serious downsides of safe supply became afraid to speak out in case their jobs were at risk or they would not qualify for government grants. 

It’s a similar situation to the climate change advocates’ reality where, instead of acknowledging and analysing different views, climate crisis supporters dismiss anyone who disagrees with their opinion no matter how well-founded their position. This is a very unfortunate trend in our debates today, when issues become polarized according to partisan affiliations and sensible discussion and debate are squelched instead of contributing to knowledge about the subject in question. 

Enter the Alberta Model. The Alberta Recovery Model is based on the belief that recovery from addiction is possible, and everyone should be supported and face as few barriers as possible when they pursue recovery. This model is becoming increasingly well-known not only in Canada but internationally as it has achieved success. Instead of funding the distribution of government-provided opioids, funds are devoted to rehabilitation facilities and building more treatment centres. As a result, overdose deaths in the province have declined. The Alberta approach is a version of a recovery-focused policy that was implemented previously in the Netherlands and Portugal. It may be needless to say, but most people who support the recovery model tend to be conservatives. Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives are very much in favour of the recovery model. 

It is very unfortunate when any issue becomes so politicized on a partisan basis, as it seems to shut down any sensible discussions on the facts of an issue as each party gets more hardened into their position and facts go by the wayside. On the question of drug addiction, the consensus at this time is that encouraging people to seek recovery from addiction is much more successful and humane than providing addicts with a safe supply of drugs to limit overdoses. As the Alberta Model gains more traction in Canada and around the world, we can hope it will be a path to support a better future for Canadians suffering from addiction and an example to be followed in other countries as well.

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