2023 worst year for drug deaths in Fort McMurray, across Alberta

There were 24 drug-related deaths in Fort McMurray and 2,051 deaths across Alberta. Most deaths involved opioids.

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Last year was the deadliest year on record for drug-related deaths in Fort McMurray and across Alberta.

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There were 24 fatal drug poisonings reported in 2023 in Fort McMurray. There were 17 deaths involving opioids, nine involving cocaine, and eight each involved alcohol and methamphetamine. Only one opioid-related death involved a pharmaceutical opiate.

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The Alberta government began publicly tracking drug poisoning deaths in 2016. Before 2023, Fort McMurray’s deadliest year for opioid deaths was 2017 after 16 people died. The deadliest year for deaths involving any substance was 2020 after 21 people died.

Between January and September, about 41.3 per cent of deaths in Fort McMurray happened inside the person’s home, 18.3 per cent of deaths were in someone else’s home and 3.6 per cent of deaths were in a private residence. Fort McMurray data for October to December of last year was not yet available.

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Hotels had 26 per cent of deaths and 6.6 per cent of deaths were in a category marked other facility. About 3.6 per cent of people died in a public place.

As of Oct. 29, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) have responded to 62 calls related to drug poisonings in Fort McMurray. The busiest year for EMS was 2022 when they responded to 100 calls related to drug poisonings. Fort McMurray data for the rest of 2023 was also not yet available.

Alberta reported 2,051 people died from drug poisonings. Opioids were involved in the deaths of 1,867 people.

Fentanyl was found in more than 93 per cent of deaths across Alberta. Methamphetamine was found in two-thirds of fatal overdoses. Most victims were men between the ages of 25 and 49. Fatal drug poisonings involving women grew to nearly 32 per cent of deaths from 24 per cent three years earlier.

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Data for early 2024 shows deaths slowing. Alberta reported 254 people died from drug poisonings in January and February, compared to 309 people who died during the same period in 2023.

During the same period, Fort McMurray reported four deaths this year 2024 and eight deaths in 2023. Provincial and local data on deaths since February are not yet available.

naloxone
A naloxone kit on display at an International Overdose Awareness Day event at the Redpoll Centre on Frday, August 31, 2018. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network SunMedia

UCP ‘cautiously optimistic’ for 2024, NDP criticizes

Hunter Baril, press secretary for Alberta’s mental health and addictions minister Dan Williams, said in a Tuesday email that Alberta is “cautiously optimistic” about the downward trends reported in early 2024. He called the deaths an “absolute tragedy” and offered his condolences to the victims.

Baril praised the opening of recovery centres in Red Deer and Lethbridge, and said the province is opening nine more facilities across Alberta. Five facilities are in partnership with Indigenous communities.

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He also called Alberta’s Virtual Opioid Dependency Program as a success. The program allows same-day access to medications, such as prescriptions to Suboxone and Sublocade, that reduce cravings and can potentially block opioid overdoses.

“With a continued focus in building the Alberta Recovery Model, more people will access life-saving services to help them overcome the deadly disease of addiction,” said Baril.

“This is what Albertans expect: a government that supports recovery, not the ongoing facilitation of addiction with failed policies adopted by other jurisdictions.”

Janet Eremenko, the Alberta NDP critic for mental health and addictions, criticized the province for releasing the data on a Friday afternoon before the Victoria Day long weekend. Eremenko had also asked Williams in the legislature about the delay. Friday’s data was the first update since February.

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Baril said December’s data included “a significant amount of data that can take varying amounts of time to compile.” Eremenko acknowledged collecting this data can take awhile, but found the timing suspect.

“These stories do not tell a particularly favourable story. The story that it tells is that more people than ever have died from opioid use,” said Eremenko in a Tuesday interview.

Eremenko called for increased funding to mental health resources and addictions programs focusing on prevention and early intervention, particularly outside Edmonton and Calgary. She also called for the expansion of opioid dependency program clinics and supervised consumption sites.

At their annual general meeting last November, UCP members voted in favour of a resolution calling for an end to provincial funding for supervised consumption sites. The vote was non-binding.

“We just need to take a multi-pronged approach that has all of those kinds of pillars around prevention and early intervention, harm reduction and recovery and treatment,” said Eremenko.

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