Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

In Alberta, Cocaine Easier to Buy than Pizza

Cocaine easier to buy than pizza
Drugs, alcohol plague transient workers living on fringes of oilpatch boom towns
Amanda Ferguson, The Edmonton Journal
Published: 2:05 am

Even when living in the remote work camps of northern Alberta, Ken was never far from his next fix.

If cocaine wasn't being used inside his camp of 3,000 oil workers in the outskirts of Fort McMurray, it lingered just outside in the pockets of the drug dealers who prowled outside the gates like predators.

"I could get it quicker than I could get a pizza," says Ken, not his real name.

What began as a flirtation with alcohol and cocaine when he first moved out to the Fort McMurray area at age 17 slowly grew into a full-blown addiction. By his late 20s, the young welder was engaging in whirlwind cocaine binges that lasted days.

As with many of his fellow workers, the mix of isolation, boredom and high wages created the right conditions for the perfect storm of substance abuse.

"You're away from your kids, you're away from everything. It's just 10 times harder to cope," he says.

"It wasn't the camps that were the problem, it's the accessibility. You made your choice of what you do with it."

As Alberta's petroleum industry moves through a period of unprecedented growth, northern communities are finding themselves increasingly swamped by cases of alcoholism and drug abuse.

Some experts suggest the problem has reached epidemic proportions, forcing police detachments, social services and oil companies to come up with new approaches.

"It is happening so rapidly that for municipalities and for the provincial government, the challenge has been keeping up with it," says Dan Dibbelt of the Northern Alberta Development Council.

Alberta's per capita average consumption of alcoholic beverages is nine litres a year -- or about 524 bottles of beer a year for each Albertan 15 or older.

The national average is 7.9 litres, according to a Canadian addiction survey from 2004.

Commissioned in part by Health Canada, the survey, which questioned more than 2,400 Albertans, was the third national survey in less than five years to examine drug and alcohol use across Canada.

The survey found that, from 1994 to 2004, the province's consumption average increased by 1.5 litres.

Drug use isn't far behind, with marijuana, crack cocaine and crystal meth problems being reported in many oil communities.

And wherever substance abuse has soared, crime has inevitably followed.

An unreleased development council study found that crime levels in communities such as Grande Prairie, Slave Lake, Cold Lake and Fort McMurray are now much higher than the provincial norm. Fort McMurray, for example, has an overall crime rate five times the provincial average.

Some experts, such as the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission's Barry Andres, chalk up the problem to a "wild west frontier mentality" that sees people embrace a work hard, play harder outlook.

But other insiders say Alberta's skyrocketing substance abuse points to a growing disconnect between a city's transient workers and the local community.

In some hydrocarbon towns, transients working in the oil and gas sector more than double the permanent population.

"These people are not committed to their community," says Dibbelt. "You don't see these people involved in things like soccer, you don't see those people sitting on committees or councils, or things like that."

John Parkins, co-author of Beyond Boredom: Contributing Factors to Substance Abuse in Hinton, says the increasing prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse is connected to an increasing sense of isolation coming from the community's oil workers.

Hinton has a mobile population ranging between 5,000 and 9,000 people, almost double the size of its permanent residents.

"The people we talked to were definitely aware that this has been part of their community for a long time," he said.

"For many communities like Hinton, the boom has simply exacerbated the conditions that are already prevalent within these communities."

On the front lines of this ongoing battle are substance abuse treatment centres.

Andres says AADAC is treating twice as many patients as it did 10 years earlier. The Fort McMurray office has seen a 25-per-cent increase in the number of clients since January 2006.

With social services increasingly swamped, the Alberta government, police and oil companies have had to take a bigger role in the fight against addiction.

This June, AADAC teamed with the RCMP and several petroleum companies to create the Drug and Alcohol Council for Safe Workplaces. The council monitors the safety hazards of having intoxicated employees in the workplace with a focus on finding help for those with addictions.

"The companies are being very proactive," says Barb Robbins, manager of AADAC's Grande Prairie office.

"We've been consulted by a number of them asking to review their alcohol and drug policy, or they will consult with us with the other things they should be putting in place."

Most of the biggest companies now conduct drug tests before hiring, as well as after any workplace accident.

If they fear an employee has an addiction, many require the worker to go a treatment facility for assessment.

But some experts say the problems are now evolving past the current solutions.

"We're now seeing less assessments being requested by employers because given the job opportunities that people have, they can quit one job and not necessarily have to follow through on those employer recommendations," Robbins said.

For Edmonton resident Dianne Vawter, who saw two of her own family members go through drug addictions, the feelings of isolation

can spread far beyond the camps of Fort McMurray.

"When they were going through it, for me, it was confusion, depression, fear," Vawter says. "I didn't know what was going on ... it was every family's worst nightmare."

Vawter convinced her family members to get help after months of research and grappling with her own depression.

As a result of her own experience, Vawter created Crave Life-Drug Free, a drug rehab placement and intervention agency for families desperate to find help for loved ones.

"I am just a mother trying to help other families who are trying to paddle their way through this maze and get help for their kids," she says.

"A lot of people don't realize that there is hope and there is help out there."

Her program is now spreading into places like Fort McMurray, where Vawter believes help is needed most.

For Ken, the camps are now a distant memory.

Drug-free for more than two years, he is back on the job working as a contractor in Fort Saskatchewan.

He says he got clean after going through an innovative treatment program that addresses the biophysical and biochemical imbalances from addiction through a unique sauna program.

"I didn't quite lose everything, but I almost did."

He believes more unconventional programs like this are required if the oil companies are going to get a handle on the troubling trend.

"No matter what you do to try and seclude drugs from being in a camp, or anywhere in any town ... there are people that will get it in," Ken says.

"There's too many people doing it, too many people selling it."



- Alberta's alcohol consumption rates are much higher than the rest of Canada, says Barry Andres, AADAC's vice-president of community services. Alberta's per capita average of alcohol consumption is nine litres a year -- or about 524 bottles of beer a year for each Albertan 15 or older -- compared with the national average of 7.9 litres.

"Alcohol is the single greatest drug of concern in Alberta," Andres says. "It is the untold story and as a society it's something we don't want to recognize."

- Alcohol abuse costs the province $1.6 billion a year in lost productivity, direct health-care costs and law enforcement, according to AADAC estimates.

- Drug addicts commit 92 per cent of armed robberies and 74 per cent of property crimes in Alberta, according to Edmonton's Clean Scene, a drug awareness agency.

- Marijuana is the most used drug by Canadians, according to the Canadian Addiction survey -- 63.4 per cent of all Canadians have used the drug in their lifetime. Next is hallucinogens at 11.4 per cent, followed by cocaine (10.6 per cent), speed (6.4 per cent) and ecstacy (4.1 per cent).

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