News / Calgary

State of emergency debate offers no clear path in Alberta opioid crisis

Leaders of Alberta's opposition parties held a news conference on Monday to demand the NDP declare the crisis a public health emergency

Overdoses related to the deadly opioid fentanyl killed 343 Albertans last year, according to the most recent data from Alberta Health.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Overdoses related to the deadly opioid fentanyl killed 343 Albertans last year, according to the most recent data from Alberta Health.

Alberta's politicians continue to debate the merits of declaring an all out public health state of emergency, yet there's no clear path to curbing the province's opioid crisis by doing so.

Monday night, members of the Alberta legislature held an emergency debate on the opioid crisis in our province, after leaders of the opposition parties penned a joint statement demanding a public health emergency be declared to free up resources and co-ordinate a response from the multiple agencies and departments involved.

“It was very powerful with everyone in the legislature basically acknowledging that we have a crisis and we are not getting ahead of it…but unfortunately the government wasn’t prepared to go to the next step,” said Dr. David Swann, leader of the Alberta Liberal Party.

The crisis could be stopped through coordinated efforts between police, the treatment of addicts, and increased public education, according to Alberta Party leader Greg Clark.

“It’s all siloed between different departments right now, and public health emergency has practical benefits in putting all of that together,” Clark said.

“Everyone’s trying to do something, but it’s all completely disconnected and disjointed.”

While declaring a public health emergency has not been ruled out, the province said, such a declaration wouldn’t enable new resources or funding sources. 

In fact, the province already has the authority to make the necessary administrative changes to fight the rise in opioid addictions, according to the office for Associate Minister of Health Brandy Payne. 

The opposition leaders disagree.

“I think a public health emergency really does match what’s happening on the streets of this province, and in the suburbs of this province, and in our high schools. This is a very widespread problem,” Clark said.

“(Declaring it) would put one person in charge of the response, and give them certain powers to compel resources to be utilized in a coordinated way.”

That person would be Alberta’s current Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), Dr. Karen Grimsrud. Should a declaration be made based on her advice, as outlined in the Public Health Act (PHA), her office would be in charge of coordinating the response.

Previously, Dr. Grimsrud has told Metro the PHA does not apply to the opioid crisis because the legislation was written for responses to communicable diseases, such as influenza.

Dr. Swann said that’s not the point.

“It doesn’t matter to us what you call it or under what act you call it,” he said.

The Emergency Management Act (EMA) has been used to mobilize resources in Alberta before and has its own definition of what constitutes an emergency.

The director of the Centre for Community Disaster Research at Mount Royal University, Dr. Timothy Haney, said the EMA was written for sudden, unexpected, geographically constrained events such as a flood, plane crash, or wildfire.

Declaring something an emergency under the EMA would typically open up the pipeline for additional resources, but it would be emergency management associations to lead the response, according to the professor.

“Could it be covered by the scope of the EMA? Sure, you could make it fit - but my concern would be that then, you’re shifting responsibility for it to emergency management organizations that best handle events with a really defined beginning and end, that affect one place geographically,” Dr. Haney said.

As he sees it, responsibility to take action on this crisis is being passed back and forth.

“In the end, it just ends up being no one’s responsibility,” Dr. Haney said.

Clark said he is confident that the PHA’s definition of a public health emergency could, and should, include the opioid crisis.

“I see no reason for them not to declare a public health emergency and to renew that every 30 days as long as there’s a crisis,” he said.

As outlined in the PHA, declaring a public health emergency would give the CMOH and minister of health a range of new powers, including the authority to enter private residences or businesses without a warrant and conscript Albertans.

Clark said concern about those additional powers has been used by the government as an argument against declaring a public health emergency.

“Perhaps there is some amendment that could reduce concerns about things like giving the power of arrest … but I don't think that’s the problem frankly. I think the PHA is probably sufficient as it is now. It certainly shouldn’t be an excuse not to do it,” Clark said.

Clark said ultimately, the public needs to know the government means business.

“(Declaring a public health emergency) has symbolic benefits in letting Albertans know we’re taking this seriously,” he said.

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