Commentary – Alberta’s fentanyl crisis requires immediate action

by Tom Henihan

By any measure, 153 deaths in six months is an alarming number especially when the cause of those deaths, the pharmaceutical drug fentanyl, will in all likelihood result in more fatalities as the year progresses. There were also an estimated 274 deaths from fentanyl overdoses in Alberta in 2015.

In any other circumstance, 153 deaths in six months and 274 deaths the previous year would be a matter of the greatest urgency and the government would mobilize immediately to address the situation.

Drug deaths, however, are a conundrum; they lie in the area of illicit behaviour and the “death by misadventure” category. The default position is that drug use takes place in a peripheral realm, that it poses no direct threat to the mainstream and therefore is less of an immediate concern to government and mainstream society.

The belief that drug use is a social anomaly to which conventional society is not prone is dangerously complacent. Fentanyl is hundreds of times more potent than heroin and about 75 to 80 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl deaths can touch anyone, any family, just like the common cold or flu and it is only when it does touch people directly that that reality resonates.

If a politician in opposition calls on the government to act on an issue, it is usually just political grandstanding. However, when Liberal Party Leader David Swann, called on the NDP Government to designate the fentanyl crisis in Alberta a public health emergency, the fact that Swann is a medical doctor lends weight to that call.

When the families of people who have died from a fentanyl overdose and those who have family members addicted to the drug, add their voice to the cause, the provincial government should be compelled to listen.

Nathan Huggins-Rosenthal was a fentanyl addict who died of an overdose last February at the age of 34. At a recent news conference Huggins-Rosenthal’s partner, Rosalind Davis also called for the government to declare the fentanyl crisis a public health emergency.

“What it does, it says our leaders care about what’s going on. It reduces that stigma,” said Davis. “If we are able to declare this as a public emergency, it makes it a medical condition and then maybe people will look at it differently.”

In a story written by Damien Wood, published in the Calgary Herald, August 31, the associate minister of health Brandy Payne attempts to dodge the issue with a vacuous statement that is devoid of any concrete proposal:

“My heart goes out to the families and friends of anyone who’s lost a loved one to drug abuse. We are continuously looking at how we can tackle the problem on a number of fronts. We have to continue to take action in order to reduce fentanyl’s impact. We’re seeing, across Canada and North America, that fentanyl is continuing to be a problem and seeing increases in overdose deaths … there’s still work to be done.”

The last sentence in the above statement is a classic deflection, a tactic of kicking the ball outside Alberta and making it a bigger Canadian and North American problem that the provincial government does not need to deal with. Obviously, as Payne said, “there’s still work to be done,” though it appears that Brandy Payne and the NDP would prefer to engage in political spin than get to work and recognize the fentanyl crisis as a public health emergency.

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