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'Help them get their lives back': Alberta police to offer addiction treatment access in jails

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Police officers in Alberta will now be able to offer immediate access to addiction treatment when they arrest someone.

The leaders of the Edmonton Police Service, Calgary Police Service and the Alberta RCMP joined a provincial associate minister in Edmonton Thursday to make the announcement.

"Albertans must still be held accountable for their actions, but we can also treat addiction as a health-care issue at the same time," said Mike Ellis, associate minister of mental health and addictions.

"The recovery-oriented system of care we’re building is about ensuring Albertans across multiple systems have access to evidence-based treatment options when and where they need them."

Officers will work with paramedics to connect people wanting treatment to doctors and provincial treatment programs.

Ellis and the police officials didn't have any exact figures of how many people detained in municipal jails also have a drug addiction.

"Let's just say lots. By far the majority have substance issues, for sure," McFee said.

"If we didn't have this, people are just on this remand and release cycle.They go in, they come out. This gives the opportunity for a medical health professional…to give these folks hope and help them get their lives back."

"Effective addiction treatment in municipal jails will relieve suffering and provide, to those who choose it, treatment that will improve their outcomes and support healing," said Dr. Nathaniel Day, with Alberta Health Services.

'HIGH RISK OF COERCION'

But the plan was criticized by some who feel the police are already tasked with providing too many services to vulnerable people, when officers often don't have specialized training in that work.

One person concerned about that is an Edmonton family doctor and associate professor at the University of Alberta.

"By nature, being in police custody is a state where people are at high risk of coercion. So, all notion of free and informed consent for addiction treatment kind of gets thrown out of the window, unfortunately," Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio told CTV News Edmonton.

"I do have concern about harm to people with respect to them not giving their true consent."

Salvalaggio, who is also a member of a local opioid poisoning committee, said people with addictions are more likely to take advice from people they trust and have formed a relationship with.

She said traditional health professionals and staff at supervised consumption sites, for example, are better trained to help.

"Unless you are developing a relationship with a person over time, having a conversation about the next steps is much more difficult," she said.

Ellis recently announced the province will be offering a monthly injection of Sublocade, free of charge, to people seeking help with opioid addiction.

The province is also striking a bipartisan committee to study the issue of "safe supply" services.

Albertans wanting to access Sublocade can call 1-844-383-7688 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m every day. People with addictions are also being encouraged to download the province's app called the Digital Overdose Response System (DORS).   

From January until the end of August 2021, 1,026 Albertans died of a drug overdose, according to provincial data.  

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