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Time to change approach on opioid crisis, says public health experts

A panel of public health experts discuss the opioid crisis at the U of A Chancellor's Forum on Monday, April 8, 2019.

Change the approach on the opioid crisis in Alberta to treat it as a public health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.

That was the message at the University of Alberta Chancellor’s Forum held by the School of Public Health Monday evening. The forum is an initiative that brings the public to campus to hear from experts on a timely topic, in this case the opioid crisis.

“We are losing two Albertans every single day to this epidemic of overdose,” said Elaine Hyshka, assistant professor with the School of Public Health. “We have made some strides in this area but there’s still a lot to do.”

The opioid crisis has seen a vast rise of overdoses deaths in drug users, a large part of those deaths have been caused by fentanyl-laced heroin. More than 700 people died due to accidental opioid poisoning in Alberta over the first three quarters of 2018. Of those, 158 fatalities occurred in the third quarter.

After safe consumption sites opened in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer, Hyshka wants to see more done to shift the issue away from one handled by police to one solved by health practitioners.

“We aren’t going to arrest our way out of this,” Hyshka said. “This is an opportunity to profile the issue in a new way and to dispel some of the myths and some of the stigma that still exist around this topic”

Hyshka said current research shows when personal drug use is criminalized, the negative effects on users are exacerbated.

Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, sat on the panel. He said major changes to drug policy are needed at all levels of government.

“This is a catastrophic failure of our drug policy in Canada,” said MacPherson. “Imagine if people died of salmonella poisoning, if there were two people dying a day to salmonella, all hell would break loose.”

MacPherson wants to see policy set in place to decriminalize opioids and create a safe stream for addicts to obtain small doses of heroin and expand the use of safe consumption sites.

“No one is dying at safe consumption sites in Canada,” said MacPherson.

Mike Serr of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police drug advisory committee, agreed law enforcement should focus on dealers, not users, but he said systems need to be in place before decriminalization could happen.

dshort@postmedia.com

@dylanshort_

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