Calgary

EMS calls hit record as Alberta studies 'tranq dope' but stays committed to recovery-oriented care

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said Thursday her government is weighing its options when it comes to its response to animal tranquilizer being added to opioids, like fentanyl and heroin, on the streets of the province.

Provincial EMS had 339 calls to opioid-related events in last week of June

A woman stands at a lectern giving a speech.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith gives a speech in this file photo. On Thursday, Smith said a real tragedy is playing out on Alberta's streets, but she reiterated the government's belief that there is no such thing as a safe supply of opioids. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said Thursday her government is weighing its options when it comes to its response to animal tranquilizer being added to opioids and an elevated number of overdose deaths.

"I have, obviously, a team that is working on this, led by [Minister of Mental Health and Addiction] Dan Williams, to see if there is anything more that we can do from a therapeutic point of view, to look at this new particular combination," Smith said.

"This is the answer that we have. We do not believe that there is such a thing as a safe supply of opioids."

The premier's comments came in the wake of new numbers released through the province's substance use surveillance system on Wednesday.

During the week of June 26, Alberta EMS calls to opioid-related incidents totalled 339 — the highest number since the province started tracking data.

The previous record was set the week prior, with 277 calls.


It's leading to challenges for those who work on the street level with people who are addicted to drugs, including for the Lethbridge-based non-profit Streets Alive Mission.

"[The EMS response rate] is not a surprise at all," said Cameron Kissick, chief operations officer of Streets Alive.

"It's never been this bad. But this has been a growing … it's become progressively worse."

Xylazine, often referred to as "tranq dope," has been showing up in the drug supplies in jurisdictions across North America in recent months. 

People are pictured wearing reflective vests.
The Streets Alive team is pictured in Lethbridge, where Cameron Kissick, chief operations officer of the mission, says the situation has never been worse. (Submitted by Streets Alive Mission)

Those who come into contact with xylazine can fall into blackout states and develop agonizing wounds that, in rare cases, can require amputation. The effects of xylazine are not reversible by naloxone, the lifesaving overdose-reversal medication.

"[The xylazine] is pretty much in everything. I think we've seen very few instances where … fentanyl doesn't have xylazine in it," Kissick said.

"I can't speak for other agencies or Lethbridge as a whole, but we're regularly [seeing overdoses] daily, if not multiple times a day."

Overdose deaths hit record

Alberta poisoning deaths in April due to opioids hit 179, the highest number since the province started collecting data seven years ago, according to the province's substance use surveillance system.

The Alberta minister of mental health and addiction spoke Thursday at the provincial announcement focused on a memorandum of understanding signed with Siksika Nation for the development of a new 75-bed recovery community. Williams said next steps were being studied, particularly from a therapeutic perspective.

"On a long-term perspective, we need to get these recovery centres up and running. We need to continue down a recovery response. The Alberta Model is not trying to hide away from this [increase] of those who are addicted," Williams said.

"We know when someone's addicted to opioids, there are two endgames — tragically, there's an emergency response possibility, and hopefully an overdose that results in a life saved, or there's recovery. Those are the only two out paths."

A man is pictured at a press conference.
Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Dan Williams is pictured at a press event Thursday announcing construction of a recovery community in Siksika Nation. Construction is expected to begin in 2024. (CBC)

Elaine Hyshka, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in health systems innovation at the University of Alberta School of Public Health, said the recent EMS numbers are alarming. She said her colleagues who work in front-line services feel like they're "drowning."

"I think it's extremely unfair to off-load these emergency life-saving responses, where in some cases, in one shift, someone's responding to five or six overdoses in a community, in a bathroom, in an alley. That's not a sustainable solution," she said.

"People who are struggling deserve better than that, too."

The problem emerging on the streets right now means those individuals can't wait a period of years until promised recovery solutions are built, Hyshka said.

"We need an emergency response that includes harm reduction now. I just don't know how to say that more plainly," she said. "It's not recovery or harm reduction. It's both."

WATCH | Outreach group hits the streets to help addicts survive the opioid crisis:

Outreach groups fight for life in the midst of a deadly drug supply

11 months ago
Duration 4:07
As Alberta's opioid deaths trend upward, there are a number of groups trying to save lives at street level. For them, it's not about getting drug-dependent people off the streets — it's about making sure people are safe and that someone is looking out for them.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joel is a reporter/editor with CBC Calgary. In fall 2021, he spent time with CBC's bureau in Lethbridge. He was previously the editor of the Airdrie City View and Rocky View Weekly newspapers. He hails from Swift Current, Sask. Reach him by email at joel.dryden@cbc.ca