Alberta’s UCP government introduced legislation Tuesday aiming to better hold the pharmaceutical industry to account for the costs of the opioid crisis.
Bill 3, the Opioid Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Amendment Act, if passed, will expand legislation first passed in 2019, when Alberta announced it would join a national class-action lawsuit launched by British Columbia against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Alberta’s proposed legislation will make pharmaceutical consultants who advised those manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors subject to potential legal proceedings.
Mental Health and Addiction Minister Dan Williams told reporters Tuesday the crisis began decades ago with the overprescribing of highly addictive drugs.
“I am determined to get every single red cent I can from those who are responsible for causing this crisis,” Williams said.
The bill will also clarify the definition of “opioid product,” and amend the market share formula, reflecting the different roles of manufacturers and distributors, to better calculate damages if they are awarded.
In 2022, Purdue Canada, one of about 40 manufacturers and distributors named in one class action, proposed a $150-million settlement to federal, provincial and territorial governments. Settlement discussions are still underway, and a Supreme Court of British Columbia certification hearing in November is expected to confirm which other governments can participate as plaintiffs.
B.C., Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have already similarly amended or moved to amend legislation to broaden their legal claims.
The court is expected to decide on the certification of another class-action lawsuit focused on the role of consultants next year.
Williams said any damages awarded will go to supporting the province’s efforts to provide mental health and addiction treatment capacity.
‘People are dying preventable deaths’
According to the province’s latest drug poisoning data, 161 Albertans died of opioid-related poisonings in July, including 58 in Edmonton.
The Opposition NDP has long called for the UCP government to expand access to harm reduction services, which includes supervised consumption sites. Many advocates and experts have long said a toxic illicit drug supply has exacerbated Alberta’s drug poisoning deaths.
As the crisis continues to claim lives, some Edmonton city councillors lamented the need for a more urgent response from the province in a committee meeting Monday.
Edmonton saw more than 300 drug poisoning deaths in first half of 2023
Alberta to join B.C. in class action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers
Ward Dene Coun. Aaron Paquette said there isn’t enough space or room for people seeking recovery, and while housing, mental health, and health care are provincial responsibilities, improvements have been too slow.
“Some people say, ‘If you have drug-checking or supervised consumption you’re giving them drugs, you’re making it easy for them to take drugs.’ They can already take drugs. They don’t have to go to these places for drugs — what we’re doing is just trying to keep people alive, so that they can get on that road to recovery,” said Paquette.
Ward Anirniq Coun. Erin Rutherford said she understands Alberta’s recovery-oriented system of care, but council’s “hands are so tied on this.”
“We’ve been in a crisis for years and years and years, and I just don’t see it matched with a crisis response. People are dying preventable deaths.”
As part of its focus on recovery, the UCP government is building 11 community recovery centres with 700 beds, two of which have opened.
The province has added or newly funded 10,000 addiction treatment spaces and expanded treatment access, including through the virtual opioid dependency program.
Williams was unable to provide an estimate of the number of people on a current waiting list to access treatment Tuesday, but said it has decreased in the past four years.
“We know that there are many many people suffering. It’s not lost on me that we have a huge task ahead of us to build this out. I believe in recovery, so I want to provide that capacity and I know that in the meantime, there are people who need that who can’t get it,” he said, noting the government also funds pre-treatment recovery houses.
Williams compared advocacy for safe supply, which involves prescribing medications to those at risk of an overdose as an alternative to illegal supplies, to the marketing campaigns of pharmaceutical companies.
“Lessons need to be learned. If we go down this road again, and we provide a second safe supply of high-powered pharmaceutical opioids en mass to the community, it will result in more addiction,” he said, adding that he believes “all illegal drugs” are poisonous and toxic.
— With files from Lauren Boothby