The United Conservative government is trying to set the record straight when it comes to its Compassionate Intervention Act.
This comes after criticisms from addictions and health experts after it was reported the province is considering the policy.
If turned into legislation and passed, the act would give police and family members or legal guardians of drug users the ability to refer adults and youth into involuntary treatment if they pose a risk to themselves and others.
The premier’s chief of staff — Marshall Smith — said that won’t happen in most cases.
In an exclusive interview with Global News, Smith explained the intervention would be forced but treatment wouldn’t be, except in certain cases.
“It’s a completely voluntary process, and the individual can refuse the help that’s being offered,” he said.
“We are looking at administrative processes, non-criminal ways, to intervene and offer a compassionate health-care response.”
The system the UCP government is modelling its treatment plan on is borrowed from Portugal, which two decades ago became the first country in the world to abolish criminal penalties for consumption and possession of all drugs and adopted a public health approach.
Moms Stop The Harm slam Alberta’s involuntary addiction treatment idea
Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001, making it so anyone caught with a small amount with no evidence of trafficking faces possible fines or referral to treatment programs — not jail.
Smith said in Alberta, a police officer may approach someone committing a minor offence and issue them a ticket — almost like a court summons — which would require them to show up to an ‘intervention commission.’
“Where they will go and get an assessment from a psychologist, and go before three commissioners, and if they’re Indigenous, they go before three Elder commissioners, and those commissions are really there to talk to them about what is going on with them,” Smith said.
Smith said the commission would act like a point to access several services, which includes addiction treatment.
“What are their housing needs, ‘Would you like to go to treatment today? We’d like to offer you a space in one of our recovery communities or treatment centres. We’d like to offer you connection with opioid substitution medication,” he said.
Smith believes this is a better alternative to a police officer arresting the individual in this hypothetical and putting them through the criminal system.
“That is the beginning of the process. Now, that individual may return to the commission over and over again as the system continues to try and engage them with offers of support and care.”
He says at this point, the treatment would be completely voluntary and there are no penalties for leaving the commission without enrolling in drug treatment.
Alberta nurse practitioner raises the alarm on handling of crystal meth use and the addiction crisis
Before implementing the new model in 2001, Portugal faced an addiction epidemic and looked at intervention. In the years that followed, drug-related overdoses dropped drastically.
In addition to decriminalization, Portugal also took the responsibility for drug policy away from the ministry of justice and into the hands of the ministry of health.
In 2019, Canada’s government looked at the idea of implementing Portugal’s model here, but the federal Conservatives called it unrealistic based on the lack of support systems.
“We do know that the Portuguese model has been fairly effective — it is a form of decriminalization, although maybe not in its full true form — and has been effective in reducing mortality rates of drug overdoses — drug poisonings — by about 80 per cent in Portugal,” Monty Ghosh explained.
He’s an assistant professor at the University of Alberta and an addiction physician who treats people who have substance use disorders.
‘Shiny Happy People’: Disturbing revelations surface in Duggar family doc
Nearly 80 school girls poisoned and hospitalized in Afghanistan
“It’s also caused a reduction in HIV rates. It’s been beneficial for a lot of people in the communities, it’s provided access for individuals into treatment programs, social services, and overall wellness programs.
“So, this type of program — depending on how it’s rolled out and what the mandate is — can be potentially beneficial and helpful.”
Ghosh calls this a step in the right direction, but cautioned there need to be checks and balances in place regarding the intervention commission that the Alberta government may introduce.
When it comes to forced treatment, Smith said if someone is overdosing numerous times a day, is violent or a danger to themselves and others, then that case may be escalated and a judge could mandate treatment similar to how someone would be under the mental health act.
Ghosh said research has divided most people into two camps: one which argues if both mandated and voluntary treatment have the same outcome then everyone should be forced into treatment, and the other argument is against removing people’s human rights and autonomy to make their own health decisions.
“Mandatory treatments are new treatment for Canada — as far as I’m aware — it’s something that hasn’t been done as of yet for substance use disorders, and we know the literature — within a Westernized context, in sort of a first world model — doesn’t show anymore benefit than voluntary treatment,” Ghosh added.
Ghosh said data from Mexico shows abstinence-focused treatment forced on people has shown increased risk of relapse and overdose deaths.
No final decision on the UCP’s Compassionate Intervention Act has been made and Smith, who has been open about his own past addictions struggles, said there are several other options the government is also looking at.
Alberta’s proposed involuntary drug treatment law violates Charter rights, could lead to more deaths
The potential Compassionate Intervention Act comes as toxic drug deaths in the province continue to surpass pre-pandemic highs.
According to Alberta Health Service’s substance use surveillance system, 1,498 people died from toxic drugs in 2022.
While this is lower than 2021 (1,626 deaths), it is still higher than pre-pandemic levels. Around 626 toxic drug deaths were recorded in 2019.
The earliest any new legislation could be introduced is after the election —May 29 — once the Alberta legislature is back in session.
— With files from Paula Tran, Global News