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Harm reduction advocates in Calgary renew calls for safe supply to prevent drug poisoning deaths

Starting at Central Memorial Park, safe supply supporters marched through downtown to the Calgary Courts Centre Tuesday, calling on the province for safe drug supply. (Karina Zapata/CBC - image credit)
Starting at Central Memorial Park, safe supply supporters marched through downtown to the Calgary Courts Centre Tuesday, calling on the province for safe drug supply. (Karina Zapata/CBC - image credit)

For Terrill Tailfeathers, a member of the Kainai Nation in southern Alberta, the drug poisoning crisis is personal.

So is the provincial government's opposition to safe supply.

"They closed the safe consumption site in Lethbridge back in 2020 and down on the Blood reserve, we lost a lot of people as a result of that," said Tailfeathers.

The provincial government pulled funding for the site after a financial audit found evidence of mismanagement and misuse of government funding by the non-profit group that ran it, ARCHES. A smaller mobile overdose prevention site, run by AHS, remains outside the Lethbridge Stabilization Centre and Shelter.

To honour the people he's lost, Tailfeathers joined dozens of Calgarians as they marched through the cold in the city's downtown on Tuesday, renewing calls to the province to allow for replacement of Alberta's unregulated drug supply with safer, regulated alternatives.

"Safe supply saves lives," said Tailfeathers.

"There are more solutions out there other than just recovery alone."

Blood Tribe member Terrill Tailfeathers says he's lost too many people to the drug poisoning crisis, which he believes could be helped with a safe drug supply.
Blood Tribe member Terrill Tailfeathers says he's lost too many people to the drug poisoning crisis, which he believes could be helped with a safe drug supply.

Blood Tribe member Terrill Tailfeathers says he's lost too many people to the drug poisoning crisis, which he believes could be helped with a safe drug supply. (James Young/CBC)

The rally — which also took place in British Columbia, Ireland and the United Kingdom — was also in support of the Drug User Liberation Front, a Vancouver-based activist group whose founders were arrested in October after distributing a safe supply of illegal drugs to prevent overdose deaths.

It comes weeks after Alberta RCMP said they responded to twice the number of drug overdoses in 2023 compared to the previous year, and three months after physicians raised concerns about an increase in drug poisoning deaths.

As someone with lived experience, harm reduction advocate Danielle English said she doesn't believe Alberta's recovery-based ideology is working.

"I think we need to start listening to folks who are actually impacted, and support them how they want to be supported, the same way that we do with any medical crisis," said English.

No place for safe supply in Alberta: minister

In a statement to CBC, Alberta's minister of mental health and addiction Dan Williams said he remains opposed to the idea.

"Our government was explicit when we made any so-called 'safe supply' program illegal in Alberta, ensuring these failed, dangerous policies do not have a place in our province. Supplying high-powered drugs to people suffering from addiction will only make matters worse," said Williams' statement.

Instead, Williams said the province is focused on recovery and life-saving treatment for those struggling with addiction, through increased addiction treatment spaces and establishing long-term recovery communities.

"We have expanded same-day, immediate access to life-saving treatment through the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program, available to any Albertan across the province," he said.

Albertans can visit VODP.ca or call 1-844-383-7688 for free, same-day addiction treatment medication through the program.

'I would not still be here if not for safer supply'

Last year, Ophelia Black won a temporary court injunction against the Alberta government to keep access to a prescribed safe supply.

Black was diagnosed with severe opioid use disorder after she became dependent on the drug as a teen, and now manages her condition by taking hydromorphone three times a day instead of using street-sourced opioids like fentanyl.

Ophelia Black says she has built a healthy, fulfilling life — and is now working on writing a fantasy novel — after she won a temporary court injunction against the province to keep access to hydromorphone, an opioid that keeps her off of fentanyl.
Ophelia Black says she has built a healthy, fulfilling life — and is now working on writing a fantasy novel — after she won a temporary court injunction against the province to keep access to hydromorphone, an opioid that keeps her off of fentanyl.

Ophelia Black says she has built a healthy, fulfilling life — and is now working on writing a fantasy novel — after she won a temporary court injunction against the province to keep access to hydromorphone, an opioid that keeps her off of fentanyl. (James Young/CBC)

She said the prescription, which she picks up at a pharmacy, changed her life.

"I can confidently say that I would not still be here if not for safer supply. Beyond keeping me off of fentanyl, it also allows me to live a higher quality of life," said Black at the rally.

Black said she realizes that there's a lot of debate about how safe supply would work, and she doesn't think just anyone who visits a doctor's office should walk out with a prescription.

But since finding what works for her, Black said she has fallen in love with being alive for the first time.

"There are so many things that I want to do, so many things that make me happy, and this provides the foundation for it. So I really hope that I can continue to have access to it, and I really hope that other people who need it can get access to it as well."