Marshall Smith has had a long and bumpy road to political success.
The chief of staff to Alberta’s new premier and key advisor on the United Conservative Party (UCP) government’s addiction and recovery file, Smith spent four years on the streets of Vancouver struggling with addiction.
In the years before he hit his downturn, Smith was working in the BC Attorney General’s ministry where he developed a reputation as a “pretty effective organizer.” It wasn’t long until he was invited to join then-BC Premier Gordon Campbell’s team at the legislature.
Smith says he had a normal, good upbringing. And he drank like any high school kid did. Only when his friends stopped drinking, “I didn’t.”
He progressively drank more though, and the environment of politics back then, with a bar in each legislature office, didn’t help. Not to mention the stress of securing the 2000 Olympic Bid.
He tried cocaine for the first time at a nightclub in Victoria in 2002.
“That was quite an experience as it is for most people…and that really sort of replaced drinking as a problem substance for me,” Smith said during an in-depth conversation with True North.
His cocaine use went from “every weekend” to “every day” until he was in Vancouver one night and couldn’t find any. So, when someone offered him methamphetamine, he took it.
It quickly replaced his cocaine use.
That began a downhill spiral in which Smith was no longer able to hold his job. The province rescinded his appointment and he “took off his suit and tie and vanished into the streets of Vancouver.”
He would go on to spend four and a half years on the streets as a homeless drug addict.
“It’s really very devastating, very hard, very cold,” he recalls. “You become very unhealthy sleeping outside and eating out of garbage cans. There’s no pretty picture to be painted there.”
As Smith succumbed to addiction, people came in and out of his life. He swapped old friends for new ones who lived a similar lifestyle to him.
“As you devolve deeper and deeper into alcoholism and addiction, less and less people want to be around you,” Smith says.
He would have sporadic contact with his family, including his mother who supported him the whole way through. Smith says a family experiences a profound loss of control as they witness one of their loved ones “kill themselves in slow motion.”
But living on the streets, Smith says people with addiction don’t realize they have a problem because it’s a disease of denial and delusional thinking.
“I believed that I was just fine. And no matter how crazy things got, I would justify to myself that I was just fine.”
Smith didn’t get treatment until he had a couple run-ins with the law and two Vancouver constables officers offered him treatment or jail. At this point, he was so unwell it was painful just to walk down the street.
He had reached the point in his illness where, as he puts it, the consequences were beginning to outweigh the benefits. And when that happens, he says addicts are given clarity — and an opportunity.
“If I didn’t have that ultimatum given to me, I probably would not be alive.”
Smith went to a publicly funded treatment centre in Maple Ridge B.C., and left after 35 days. Now, 17 years clean, Smith attends mutual support meetings to this day.
“I’m sitting here talking to you today as the chief of staff to the premier of Alberta. Those are the gifts that recovery has given me.”
He returned to government, eventually catching the eye of former UCP leader and Alberta premier Jason Kenney, who brought him to Alberta as the lead in the Mental Health and Addictions office.
“I love Alberta,” Smith says. “I think that I’m much more at home here in Alberta with conservatives than I ever was in British Columbia.”
Smith says his appointment as chief of staff “without a question” signifies the seriousness with which the premier considers the addictions crisis. And, he says, there’s been a change in how addictions are viewed, which guides the systems of implementation.
“Simply, our view is that people have the right to recover and get well. They have the right to individual choice and the freedom of choice. They have the right to be unencumbered in their pursuit of a better life for themselves.”
In an effort to help people pursue a better life, they need access to treatment. Smith says the province is decades behind on building what’s called recovery communities — treatment which focuses on recreating addicts’ communities in a healthy way.
The province has plans to build 11 more facilities. Construction has started on five, and a Red Deer location with 75 beds is opening next month. The facilities cost $20 million to build and can serve 600 people per year.
Smith says his message is that recovery works and that his life is living proof of it.
“It’s been a long distance to travel from where I was to here.
“For those that are out there suffering or having difficulty with this, know not only is recovery possible, but you can get your life back and go on to do great things.”