A confluence of factors is responsible for the growing problem of public intoxication in Prince Albert, addiction specialists say.
© Herald photo by Matt Gardner
Public intoxication is a growing problem in Prince Albert, typically being responsible for half the arrests made by police each weekend.
Statistics from the 2011 census illustrate that Prince Albert made far more arrests for public intoxication that year than Saskatoon or Regina, despite being a fraction of the size. The number of arrests for public intoxication climbed six per cent from 2010 to 2011, and thus far 2012 has seen an eight per cent increase from the previous year.
“Those numbers are atrocious, and you can quote me on that,” Sgt. Kelly McLean of the Prince Albert Police Service said. “To have more public intoxication arrests than a jurisdiction that’s six or seven times our size is pretty indicative of a serious problem in our community, and it’s something that Chief (Troy) Cooper has taken as one of his main mandates … to drive that number down.”
Chief among suggested aggravating factors are the city’s geographical position, its relatively young demographics, the growing availability of alcohol and a culture of binge drinking.
As the “Gateway to the North,” Prince Albert attracts plenty of outsiders -- many of whom bring their addiction issues along with them.
“People don’t come to P.A. and all of a sudden become alcoholics or drug abusers,” Brief and Social Detox Centre manager of detox services Cory Rennie said. “They would definitely bring that in there. For example, if you’re in a northern community and the price of a 26 (-ounce bottle) is three times what it is here, when they come to town here, chances are they won’t just buy one, they’ll buy three.”
Sgt. McLean noted that approximately 40 per cent of arrests made by local police are for people from outside their municipal jurisdiction. While Prince Albert proper has a population of roughly 35,000, the trading area surrounding it contains up to 150,000 people, creating a much larger pool of individuals with addiction issues.
Another reason is the relatively youthful demographic of the city -- though the majority of occupants at the Brief and Social Detox Centre skew much older.
“I want to be very clear that I don’t believe this is a youth issue,” Prince Albert Parkland Health Region addiction services representative with Community Mobilization Glenis Clarke said.
“But we do have a younger demographic in Prince Albert, whereas a lot of other places nationally are getting older. Our population here is getting younger … Young people are probably more prone to party than older people are, and if you have a culture of binge drinking, then that’s your population that’s likely going to engage in it.”
I don’t think there’s any denying that availability’s up. Sgt. Kelly McLean
Two additional, interrelated factors are the increased availability of alcohol and what Clarke identified as a “culture of excessive drinking.”
“I will tell you that alcohol is more available now as I approach the end of my (27-year) career than it was at the beginning of my career,” McLean said. “For example, when I first started, you couldn’t buy alcohol on a Sunday. You certainly couldn’t buy alcohol in a drive-thru environment … I don’t think there’s any denying that availability’s up.”
“The fact that it’s a legal substance, I think, really plays a part,” Rennie said. “From when you’re young, if you see that sort of behaviour, if you’re used to alcohol always being in the fridge, as you get older, of course your lifestyle could reflect that. So to you, it’s just what’s within the norm -- and then it’s just a matter of things (getting) worse.”
Dismal statistics aside, police and health workers are fighting back against the harmful effects of alcohol abuse. Community programs such as the Hub and Centre of Responsibility have found success taking a preventive rather than reactive approach to drug and alcohol abuse.
Sgt. McLean heaped praise on the Brief and Social Detox Centre for looking after intoxicated individuals, which he said accords with the police department’s view that public intoxication is more of a public health issue than a criminal one.
The strongest manifestation of the preventive approach is the Parkland Health Region Addiction Services unit’s work in local schools. By talking to kids before they start to drink, teaching them good life choices and providing positive role models, the intent is to eliminate the problem of binge drinking at its source.
“We’ve seen some amazing things happen with the Raiders, as simple as having some Raiders come in and read with these kids and provide some positive role models and some alternative choices to alcohol and drugs,” Sgt. McLean said. “If we can spend some of that money that’s available through the government or find funding someplace else to do that as a preventative approach, that’s when we’re going to see some results.”
He added: “We’re not going to see them tomorrow, and we’re not going to see them next month. We’re not going to see them during my career. But we have to start somewhere. If we don’t start somewhere, all we’re going to see is that wheel continue to turn.”