Addicted: How Edmonton could solve its meth problem

This is part five of a five-part series examining methamphetamine in Alberta’s capital city.

Article content

What should be done about Edmonton’s meth problem?

The first step is perhaps not to approach it as a “meth” problem at all. Police Chief Dale McFee says the trouble is a system that fails more broadly to respond to mental health and addictions.

“If you just chase the drug, there will be a new drug,” he says. In 2019, McFee told city council Edmonton does not need “another strategy for meth.” He stressed that “the people that use fentanyl, use meth, use marijuana, and will use the next drug.” As Streetworks nurse Marliss Taylor puts it: “You don’t have just scotch drinkers, where that’s all they’ll ever let pass their lips.”

The substances that are killing people in Alberta now are rarely unadulterated, and meth is becoming more and more prevalent in deadly opioid overdoses. It’s increasingly hard to tell the actual chemical make-up of any given pill or powder purchased on the street.

Colleen Klein’s meth task force in the mid-2000s showed how studies, reports and expert panels on a specific drug can wind up on the shelf, creating immense frustration for those involved. Another lesson from the Klein panel is if your focus is a single drug, the problem can appear to simply “solve” itself, as happened in the mid-2000s when meth’s popularity dipped across the prairies. Meth fell off the radar, but addiction didn’t.


Story continues below

Article content

All that said, meth presents unique problems that demand a unique set of solutions.

A good place to start is with the “four pillars,” the philosophy behind Canada’s approach to illicit drugs, prevention, enforcement, treatment and harm reduction.

Street works nurse Marliss Taylor taken on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Edmonton.
Street works nurse Marliss Taylor taken on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Edmonton. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia


Emily Jenkins, a professor at the University of B.C. School of Nursing, saidCanada’s approach to preventing substance use in youth is “piecemeal” and still largely focused on abstinence-based messaging.

Jenkins was part of a joint UBC/University of Calgary study that surveyed 83 teenagers across B.C. about substance-use education. Released in 2019, the study found kids tended to tune out “just say no” style messaging.

  1. Jeff Chalifoux stands beneath the Walterdale Bridge, in Edmonton on Sept. 5, 2020. In his teens Chalifoux spent time sleeping rough under the bridge. Chalifoux is a registered social worker currently working on his Masters in clinical social work.

    Addicted Part Four: How meth erodes Edmonton-area families and communities

  2. Codey Gibbons has been using meth for 12 years.

    Addicted Part Three: How meth takes a toll on Edmonton’s health system and devastates users

  3. A woman lights her meth pipe after smoking a joint with a friend behind a dumpster downtown on August 4, 2020.

    Addicted Part Two: Meth fuelling petty and violent crime in Edmonton

  4. Jocelan Yeomans is recovering from a meth addiction. She began using meth in 2014 after a decade addicted to crack cocaine. “It’s very dark, and it’s a very different world,” she says.

    Addicted Part One: How meth hooked Edmonton — again

  5. Read our entire Addicted series on meth in Edmonton

“It shut down opportunities for them to seek help if they needed it, and just created a lot of mistrust — especially when they were (being told) substances will just rot your brain, and they experiment and find that was not their experience.”

Jenkins does not endorse a laissez-faire approach toward youth substance use.

Instead, she advocates an approach that incorporates harm reduction and builds trust between youth and the adults in their lives, without “condoning or condemning” drug use.


Story continues below

Article content

“Substance use occurs, and has occurred in all societies, really, for centuries,” she said. “We should be seeking to prevent the harms associated, and that looks very different than seeking to prevent all substance use.”

Rebecca Haines-Saah, Jenkins’ co-researcher and a professor at the U of C’s Cumming School of Medicine, said evidence shows the best drug education “is probably not about drugs at all.”

“Feeding kids a bunch of information about different drugs has zero effect,” she said.

She argues for a prevention strategy focused on helping youth build social skills, healthy relationships, and positive mental health.

Another approach is to invest in arts and sports programs, as was done in Iceland. “Iceland had super-high rates of alcohol and tobacco (use), and they halved them in a decade among teens,” Haines-Saah said.

Discarded needles and drug paraphernalia lay in an alley near 101 Street and 105 Avenue., in Edmonton Wednesday Sept. 2, 2020.
Discarded needles and drug paraphernalia lay in an alley near 101 Street and 105 Avenue., in Edmonton Wednesday Sept. 2, 2020. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

Scott McKeen, the inner-city Edmonton councillor, believes one of the most effective things the city can do to prevent and treat addiction is to get people into housing and keep them there.

“We just fail, as a society, to recognize trauma and mental illness these people suffer, living on the streets in Edmonton. We don’t recognize that as a medical condition. We recognize it instead, falsely, as a moral failing,” he said.

The city’s approach to homelessness is “housing first,” a philosophy that argues people must have a safe place to live before they can start to work on the issues — like addiction — that led to them becoming homeless in the first place.


Story continues below

Article content

McKeen is convinced that investments in housing will save money on policing, courts and health-care down the road. One study of the “housing first” model in Seattle found a single complex saved about $4 million on emergency services over the course of a year.


The Canadian justice system’s approach to substance use is evolving. Police chiefs have endorsed decriminalization of simple possession, prosecutors are being given more leeway in handling low-level drug cases and courts focused on treatment rather than punishment are becoming mainstream.

Chief McFee has been upfront about the limitations of enforcement.

“If we just eliminate the supply chain, there’s somebody going to step in and take it over,” he said. “We’ve got to reduce the demand.”

Still, it remains to be seen how much of McFee’s philosophy is filtering down to frontline officers. In 2018, the year before McFee took over, Alberta had the highest rates of meth possession arrests in the country, according to Statistics Canada.

Codey Gibbons, a meth user of over a decade, has himself been arrested over relatively tiny amounts of meth. Gibbons has sold small amounts just to get by, a practice known as survival dealing. Two years ago he was charged for selling just under two grams to an undercover police officer.

He was subsequently charged, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve time in jail on weekends.

“I wish the cops would just leave us alone and go after the ones that are not the dealers, but supplying the dealers,” Gibbons said.


Story continues below

Article content

Codey Gibbons has been using meth for 12 years.
Codey Gibbons has been using meth for 12 years. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

Before being shuffled out of the role in August, United Conservative Party Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer touted provincial spending on rural policing and ALERT, the integrated drug and gang unit. During an interview in March, Schweitzer said ALERT is setting up a specialized unit focused on opioids and meth.

Schweitzer also highlighted UCP spending on drug courts, enabling more people to receive treatment instead of jail time.

Drug treatment courts have a mixed reputation. In the U.S., they’re criticized for penalizing people who relapse, and Alberta’s drug courts are not without critics who say they are too rigid. Nevertheless, drug courts have been crucial to the recovery of several hundred former substance users.

Edmonton drug court manager Grace Froese said the program typically costs $20,000 to $25,000 per person, compared to the $110,000 it costs imprison a man for one year. Around 70 per cent of drug court graduates never wind up before the courts again.

Harm reduction

Harm reduction is a philosophy aimed at mitigating the negative effects of drug use. The four pillars approach has its roots in Switzerland, which adopted harm reduction in 1998 after a failed experiment with decriminalized drug use in Zurich’s Platzspitz Park.

Insite, Canada’s first supervised injection site, began operating in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2003, with a special exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. In 2011 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that Insite could continue to operate.


Story continues below

Article content

With the support of the former NDP government, seven supervised consumption sites, where people can use drugs overseen by trained staff, eventually opened in Alberta, including four in Edmonton.

Jason Luan, the UCP’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, says he supports the four pillars approach. But he accuses the previous NDP government of focusing too much on harm reduction at the expense of addiction treatment services.

Luan says the government is taking the “spirit” of harm reduction but significantly shifting the focus toward treatment.

“It cannot be a standalone service with no focus, no direction … on its own, kind of a fragmented front,” Luan said of harm reduction. “It has to be part of the continuum (of care) aiming at getting people out of addiction.”

Jason Luan, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction.
Jason Luan, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

Harm reduction advocates, for their part, see the UCP as ideologically opposed to supervised consumption.

NDP MLA Heather Sweet, Opposition critic for mental health and addictions, questions the notion of simply embracing the “spirit” of harm reduction.

“You either acknowledge and accept the science that harm reduction works in keeping people alive until they’re able to access recovery and treatment, or you don’t,” Sweet says. She supports more treatment beds, “but I also believe that you can’t ignore the people that are not ready to access treatment.”

Much of the harm reduction sector’s wariness of the UCP stems from its panel on supervised consumption sites. The government tasked the panel with reviewing the sites’ impact on businesses and surrounding neighbourhoods — not users who may have benefited from harm reduction.


Story continues below

Article content

Luan and Premier Jason Kenney have also come out against “safer supply” policies, in which pharmaceutical substitutes are made available to people who use street drugs. Safer supply policies are being pursued in B.C., and have the support of Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. Alberta saw a record 301 deadly drug poisonings between April and June, but Kenney said Alberta won’t follow B.C.’s lead on safer supply.

They think … we’re bad people. It’s not our fault that we have the addiction, and we were born that way.

Codey Gibbons

When it comes to meth, advocates say there is still more that can be done on the harm reduction.

One option is better equipping existing supervised consumption sites for meth users. The majority of meth users smoke the drug, meaning most can’t use a supervised facility. Many of the community concerns about crime and erratic behaviour are associated with stimulants rather than opioids.

Before it closed, the ARCHES safe consumption site in Lethbridge was the first and only site in North America with indoor inhalation booths. Marliss Taylor, the Streetworks nurse, believes inhalation booths can help reduce disruption in the community, connect more users with services, and ultimately save lives.

“I think the inhalation rooms are critical, because a lot of people who are dropping outside our building are smoking their drugs,” she said. “That would take one huge group of people into a more supervised setting.”

Luan said the province is reviewing whether inhalation booths should be part of its drug strategy, but the preliminary recommendation is to not use them.


Story continues below

Article content

Another area for improvement is drug testing. Contaminated drugs are a growing problem. Other drugs — most frequently meth — were found in the systems of 82 per cent of Albertans who died of an opioid overdose this spring.

British Columbia has a province-widenetwork of public and private drug testing agencies to warn people about contaminated drugs. Edmonton, for all intents and purposes, has a single such organization.


When someone is ready for addictions treatment, time is of the essence.

“When they have that little window of insight where they’re looking for help and realize they want to change … then we need to make sure our services are available as quickly as possible,” said Mark Snaterse, AHS’s executive director of addiction and mental health.

In 2019, AHS launched a program called Access 24/7, based out of the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s Anderson Hall. Staffed round the clock, the aim is to provide immediate mental health and addictions help from a single point of access, 365 days a year.

“Booking an appointment for somebody three weeks out to see an addictions counsellor isn’t going to do it,” Snaterse said.

For meth users, treatment almost always begins with detox. Sleep disturbances, nightmares, aches and pains and confusion are common meth withdrawal symptoms. Last year, the AHS system recorded a total of 10,724 admissions to detox and residential addictions treatment programs.

Mark Snaterse, head of addictions with Alberta Health Services, on February 14, 2020.
Mark Snaterse, head of addictions with Alberta Health Services, on February 14, 2020. Photo by Shaughn Butts /Postmedia

How quickly someone gets into treatment depends on where they live. There are 976 publicly funded addictions treatment beds across Alberta, with a (pre-COVID-19) median wait time of 20 days. In Edmonton and Calgary, there was on average no wait for outpatient treatments such as medication management, therapy and psychiatric consultations. Outside the major centres, though, waits for outpatient treatment were as long as 20 days.


Story continues below

Article content

For the UCP, new treatment beds have been the measure of success in responding to the addictions crisis. In an op-ed, Luan said the goal is to create 4,000 publicly funded care spaces across the addictions treatment system. In July, Luan announced funding for five “recovery communities” across the province with a total of 400 new beds. The approach has earned plaudits from groups including Alberta Addiction Service Providers, who recently penned an open letter saying they’ve “never felt more supported and encouraged by any government in our memory.”

Critics, however, argue the focus on beds is narrow-minded.

“I’d really like to know exactly what they’ve invested their money in, and what outcomes it has produced,” said Petra Schulz, founder of the harm reduction group Moms Stop the Harm. “Because whatever it’s done, it’s not made a dent in the overdose deaths.”

Schulz’s son Danny died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2014. The day before he died, Danny asked her to make appointments with his doctor and psychologist. She suspects he relapsed, but she didn’t want to ask for fear of starting a fight. “That’s what I keep telling this government: you can create all the treatment spaces you want. If you don’t have harm reduction in place, people won’t live long enough to make it to those spaces.”

Petra Schulz holds photos of her son Danny Schulz.
Petra Schulz holds photos of her son Danny Schulz. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

Schulz also believes there needs to be a greater diversity of treatment programs. While 12-step programs work for many people, they can be alienating for others, and often aren’t the best treatment for people with opioid addictions. “We don’t have one-size-fits-all with anything else,” she said. “Especially nowadays, when young people are disconnected (from) religion and spirituality and such, it’s harder to give yourself up to some higher power as part of getting treatment.”


Story continues below

Article content

Angela Welz, another Moms Stop The Harm member, has seen what happens when someone who isn’t ready is forced into treatment. Welz’s 16-year-old daughter Zoe died of a fentanyl overdose four years ago. Zoe initially turned to drugs when her grandmother died and her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Eventually, meth became her drug of choice.

“Her addiction happened really, really quickly, and it got out of control very quickly,” said Welz. By 2016, Welz was desperate, and sought a court order under the Protection of Children Abusing Drugs (PChAD) Act.

“Essentially (we) put her in a mandatory detox for ten days, and we did that twice,” Welz said. “We didn’t learn the first time that it didn’t work, but (we were) desperate, and that’s the only thing offered to you to help your child.”

Zoe was released with a barebones treatment plan. She ended up hanging out with people she met at the PChAD safehouse. Things got worse.

“She lost her sense of support from us, she didn’t feel that we took her seriously,” Welz said. “It just broke a lot of trust.” The PChAD program is now under review after an investigation by the Child and Youth Advocate into 12 teenagers who died of opioid overdoses — including Zoe.

When treatment works

While treatment can be enormously difficult, it helped Jocelan Yeomans rebuild her life after years of meth addiction. As part of drug court, she underwent detox, followed by 42 days of treatment at Poundmaker’s Lodge. She was then enrolled in Adeara Recovery Centre.


Story continues below

Article content

Yeomans’ treatment was “door to door,” with no gaps in care, no waiting for a bed. “This was a true miracle, to end up (at Adeara),” she says.

Yeomans underwent 18 months of treatment — much longer than most drug court attendees. She lived at the Adeara facility, seeing a counsellor up to four hours a week. She also took more than a dozen classes, in anger management, codependency and parenting.

Jocelan Yeomans poses for a photo in Edmonton Friday Jan. 24, 2020. Yeomans is recovering from a meth addiction.
Jocelan Yeomans poses for a photo in Edmonton Friday Jan. 24, 2020. Yeomans is recovering from a meth addiction. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

Adeara’s program includes a focus on spirituality. Yeomans realized the thing she was missing in her life was faith. She was baptized in a Pentecostal Church. There, she found something she craved: forgiveness.

She’s applied to graduate from drug court, has found her own place and a job, and is reconciling with her children. Still, Yeomans knows addiction isn’t done with her.

“It’s going to be a lifelong challenge,” she said.


Just as recovering from addiction requires examining oneself, responding to meth will require a deeper look at our society.

Jenkins, the UBC researcher, said we need better ways of preventing and responding to trauma — the beginning of so many peoples’ addictions stories.

“It should be something that we’re addressing — the root causes, or the inequities in terms of substance use harms,” she said. Those harms disproportionately impact the most vulnerable: racialized people, people who live in poverty, victims of violence. “If we want to look at prevention, then we have to prevent those harms,” she said.


Story continues below

Article content

Marliss Taylor believes we need to acknowledge why people turn to stimulants in the first place.

“Stimulants replace a lot of terrible feelings that people have,” she said. “They make you feel smart and strong and beautiful and confident.” Any response should seek to understand why people don’t feel those things any other way.

Responding to meth above all requires compassion for people who are so often written off as zombies, tweakers or worse.

During an interview at Boyle Street on a chilly day in February, Codey Gibbons was asked what people don’t understand, or get wrong about people who use methamphetamine.

“They think … we’re bad people,” he said. “Because we’re homeless, or not homeless and we’re still using.”

He paused, shifting in his chair.

“It’s not our fault that we have the addiction, and we were born that way.”

—with files from Alanna Smith

Read our entire Addicted series on meth in Edmonton:

Addicted Part One: How meth hooked Edmonton — again

Addicted Part Two: Meth fuelling petty and violent crime in Edmonton

Addicted Part Three: How meth takes a toll on Edmonton’s health system and devastates users

Addicted Part Four: How meth erodes Edmonton-area families and communities


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Latest articles

Related articles