Alberta drug deaths hit record high in 2023

Deaths jumped nearly 17 per cent over 2022, and are nearly 9 per cent over 2021’s previous high of 1,885 deaths.

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Alberta saw a record number of drug poisoning deaths in 2023, a deadly wave killing more than 2,000 people.

But numbers for the first two months of this year show a slight dip.

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A total of 2,052 Albertans died from January to December, including 743 in Edmonton and 629 in Calgary.

Opioid deaths account for the vast majority of drug deaths, at 1,849.

Deaths jumped nearly 17 per cent over 2022, and are nearly nine per cent over 2021’s previous high of 1,885 deaths.

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Fentanyl was the main culprit, according to data supplied by the Government of Alberta. The substance was found in more than 93 per cent of cases. Trailing was methamphetamine, which was present in two-thirds of the fatal overdoses.

The majority of those who died were men, most of whom were between 25 and 49 years of age. However, the share of women killed by overdoses has been growing, reaching nearly 32 per cent in 2023 from 24 per cent three years earlier.

People are increasingly dying of overdoses in public. More than 36 per cent of users lost their lives outdoors in the fourth quarter of 2023, compared with 22 per cent in the same period in 2022. Meanwhile, the share of those overdosing in their residence has sharply fallen.

Data for the early part of the new year show deaths slowing.

In January and February of this year, the most recent data available, 254 people died from toxic drugs in Alberta, compared with 309 in 2023, a drop of nearly 18 per cent. In 2022, 365 people died in the same period.

UCP members in their annual general meeting voted in favour of a resolution calling on the current government to end provincial funding for supervised consumption sites, where people can access clean equipment and services, including drug-checking technology, which allows users to check the contents of their drugs.

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Hunter Baril, press secretary to the minister of mental health and addiction, told Postmedia in February that the province is witnessing a “significant” drop in deaths through the Alberta recovery model.

“Opioid addiction is not the only challenge Alberta faces, as we see significant harms as a result of addiction to other substances including alcohol and cocaine,” Baril said.

“It is important to note that while opioids remain a concern, fatalities from prescription drugs are at their lowest in recorded history, fatalities as a result of alcohol are the lowest in recorded history, and fatalities as a result of cocaine are the lowest in recorded history,” said Baril.

Janet Eremenko, Alberta NDP critic for mental health and addictions, slammed the government’s measures to address addiction, saying: “It clearly is not good enough. I’m frustrated and deeply saddened, because it doesn’t have to be this way.

“This is a public health crisis, and it’s time this government acts like it,” she said. “For five months, the UCP withheld this data from Albertans. They hid these numbers all while introducing legislation and pouring Albertans’ money into their narrow approach to addiction.”

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