Alberta’s New Premier Could Be Even More Anti-Harm Reduction

    The new premier of Alberta, Canada, is offering a similar drug policy approach to her predecessor, only worse, a leading local harm reduction advocate told Filter. Premier Danielle Smith took over as leader of the traditionally right-leaning province and its ruling United Conservative Party (UCP) in October. Her predecessor Jason Kenney, stepped down following a UCP leadership vote, triggered earlier this year by controversy over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    As Filter has previously reported, since the UCP won power in 2019, Alberta’s government has been betting heavily on abstinence-only recovery as a way to deal with rising rates of overdose deaths. It has opposed harm reduction services, waging a war against safe consumption sites around the province. But according to Petra Schulz, co-founder of harm reduction group Moms Stop the Harm, Smith’s policies are poised to be even more anti-harm reduction than Kenney’s.

    “More than a little worse.”

    “I think with Danielle Smith, we have more of the same … just a little worse,” she told Filter. “More than a little worse, is the best way of putting it.”

    Smith has already made headlines as premier by seeking advice from a former advisor of former President Donald Trump who called COVID-19 a “bioweapon,” and by allegedly seeking to privatize Alberta’s public health care system. She also swiftly replaced Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. She has been critical of harm reduction in the past, claiming it has failed in places like Vancouver.

    This month, Smith released a mandate letter for the province’s department of addictions and mental health, ordering it to “continue to develop Alberta’s recovery-oriented system of care.” It remains similar to the province’s position under Kenney.

    It also calls for the department to “operationalize six new recovery communities in key locations;” to “ensure that recovery and increasing the recovery capital of Albertans is the primary policy;” to “improve interventions for Albertans with addiction who may be a danger to themselves and others;” and to develop “referral pathways for people with mental health and addiction issues within the criminal justice system,” among other instructions.

    In vocally criticizing harm reduction, Smith has claimed that Alberta’s recovery-based approach has resulted in a 50 percent decline (around 9:20 in the video) in overdose deaths from their peak last year.

    However, Schulz said that this number has a slant. She said that Smith must have been comparing the numbers of deaths from winter last year—when the country was still in the depths of COVID-19 lockdowns—to summer of this year. Schulz noted that overdose deaths tend to be higher during the winter than the summer.

    Smith does not say in the video which dates she uses for comparison, and the government of Alberta did not respond to Filter’s requests for clarification by publication time.

    Other reports note, however, that from January to March this year, at least, the number of opioid-involved deaths (444) had increased by 23 percent compared to the same period last year. 

    Schulz is also concerned that Smith’s approach—and Alberta’s, more broadly—may be attracting attention from national-level politicians.

    The province of around 4.3 million people saw 970 such deaths in the first eight months of 2022. This is essentially the same as the equivalent period last year, when there were 969 deaths.

    Schulz is also concerned that Smith’s approach—and Alberta’s, more broadly—may be attracting attention, including from national-level politicians. Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre, for instance, has been a staunch supporter of recovery-based systems, and a critic of harm reduction. He recently published a video of himself talking about his views as they apply to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

    This wouldn’t be the first time anti-harm reduction stances have spread from Alberta. As Filter previously reported, a controversial, discredited report produced by the provincial government last year claimed that safe consumption sites increase crime in nearby areas. The report was subsequently used for anti-harm reduction lobbying purposes in other North American jurisdictions.

    According to Schulz, Smith and the UCP are doubling down on their policies by attempting to take credit for fixing something that isn’t being fixed. “They say their approach is responsible for an improvement, which hasn’t even happened,” she said. 



    Photograph of a campaign sign in rural Alberta in 2012 by JMacPherson via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Doug is a writer, editor and journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark Magazine, New Scientist and Hakai, among others. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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