Overdoses remain a threat despite positive trends

By Justin Sibbet, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Following a record-high number of overdose fatalities in the province last year, the funeral processions are not stopping.

Like the province, Lethbridge also saw a yearly record rate of fatal overdose victims, with 124 total deaths in 2023. This is up dramatically from 78 deaths in 2022 and 70 the year before that.

Dr. John Webb, an addictions medicine doctor with the Prairie Treatment Centre, says the rise in deaths are leading to additional overdoses and addiction issues because people are turning to heavier use when those around them pass away.

“Using opioids, or falling back into using opioids, is out of an inability to cope with the grief they’re experiencing over the frequent loss of loved ones, often because of opioid overdose,” said Webb. “It’s become a bit of a vicious circle.”

Unfortunately, he says when a person overdoses, it’s already too late to help them.

“I only see the people who are alive.” 

Webb says the spike seen in early 2023 can be partially attributed to the introduction of xylazine in southern Alberta. 

“It’s been basically a year since so-called ‘tranq-dope’ started showing up in Lethbridge,” said Webb. “(Which is) fentanyl or carfentanyl that’s had xylazine added to it.”

Xylazine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is a veterinary tranquilizer not approved for human use.

Even so, Webb says the rise of xylazine is terrifying for many drug users, but they are unable to quit cold turkey. He says, once addicted, the need for drugs is like the need for food.

“I don’t need to explain that the drive to eat when you’re hungry… people will do anything they need to get (food),” said Webb. “It’s not just the avoidance of a horrible withdrawal, there’s also a rapid conditioning to seek (drugs) out and it just tramples reason.”

He says, even if the behavioural conditioning was not present, the withdrawals are still colossal.

“Your whole-body hurts, you’re vomiting, you have diarrhea, you can’t stop shaking and you have overwhelming anxiety and also a general sense of life being terrible and it’s all at the same time and it’s all turned up to 11.”

However, cautious optimism may be possible as 2024 has been off to a less deadly start. The most up-to-date information released by the Government of Alberta shows January and February of this year with less than half of the fatalities in the same period as compared to 2023.

Hunter Baril, press secretary for Dan Williams, Alberta’s mental health and addiction minister, said in a statement to the Lethbridge Herald that a new treatment centre in Lethbridge has been paramount to the turnaround and that there are more coming to the province.

“We are building nine more of these facilities, five of which are in direct partnership with Indigenous communities across the province.”

This, Webb agrees, is crucial to the fight against drug addiction. He works in Lethbridge, Calgary, Standoff and occasionally other cities in the province. As a result, he sees firsthand how critical the situation is, particularly on Indigenous land.

“Especially in the Standoff area, it just became… Anecdotally, like the awareness of hearing of people dying became more frequent to the extent that it was kind of overwhelming and numbing,” said Webb. “You’re sort of just at a loss for what to say to people because it just seems like a nightmare.”

Meanwhile, Baril says Albertans rightfully demand something be done to solve the problems facing the community.

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

According to Webb, most individuals seeking treatment fail to stick with it. Furthermore, he estimates only around half of drug users ever even seek support in the first place. He says this takes its toll on the mental health of addiction support workers, such as himself.

“You always remember the first one,” said Webb. He adds that the first patient of his to die by overdose was a mother who had just lost two of her children. He now says he will be blunt with his patients, rather than beating around the bush.

“I’m kind of candid and (tell them) I’m worried they’re going to die, because that’s just a fact.”

He says his patients often have little to no reaction when told they are at severe risk of death. 

Meanwhile, Baril says the government hopes to help as many people as possible on their journey of addiction and recovery.

“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.

However, Webb is less optimistic, saying that even one death is unacceptable.

“I think the only thing you can say with certainty is that we are coming out of a horrific year where, clearly, the mortality peaked in 2023,” said Webb. “It’s coming from such a high, it kind of looks like it’s coming down but it’s still pretty high.”

In 2023, Lethbridge had the highest rate of fatal overdoses per capita in the province, out of the selected municipalities by the provincial report.