Addressing Canada's overdose epidemic

The flurry of new initiatives introduced by the federal government signals a major philosophical shift on drug policy issues.

First, Health Minister Jane Philpott approved the Dr. Peter Centre’s application to continue operating a supervised injection site in Vancouver, giving hope that similar sites in other parts of the country might also be welcomed by the government. Then, Minister Philpott visited Insite, Vancouver’s other supervised injection facility, which she described as “having a huge impact on people” and “incredibly moving.” That was closely followed by news that Health Canada would fast-track the process of changing the status of naloxone to a non-prescription drug, making it easier to access this life-saving medication that’s administered during overdoses.

Together, these measures not only provide a desperately needed expansion of this country’s harm-reduction initiatives that are needed to address the drug overdoses plaguing our communities, they also represent a shift toward a drug policy that puts people’s lives first.

The Harper government viewed illicit drug use as a criminal justice matter, a perspective that consistently led to punitive and stigmatizing measures being taken against people who use illegal drugs. The new government, on the other hand, has started to shift Canada’s drug policy towards a public health and harm reduction approach, which is grounded in scientific evidence and human rights. This shift was further reinforced when, this week, the Canadian delegation to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna articulated the government’s commitment to advance evidence-based policies in considering all drug policy initiatives.

We should celebrate this stated commitment to evidence-informed policy development and the tentative but important first steps. But we should also recognize that much more needs to be done.

Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia have all reported staggering increases in the number of overdoses and overdose-related deaths over the past two years. These increases can be linked directly to a steady rise in the availability of fentanyl, an opiate drug regularly passed off as heroin by street dealers, but dangerously more potent.

The statistics lay bare what public health officials have known for some time: we are in the midst of an epidemic. Instead of ignoring this national health crisis as the previous government did, however, the federal Liberals appear to be open to solutions, including ending the proliferation of new laws that punish drug users and create barriers to health services meant to support them.

Another promising initiative is a Liberal MP’s private member’s bill that would grant amnesty to those reporting an overdose. Fear of prosecution has proven to be a barrier for people to call for help when they are with someone who’s having an overdose. Only 46 per cent of respondents to a Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council survey said they would call 911 during an overdose situation. Seconds matter in these cases and saving a life shouldn’t be weighed against facing a potential drug possession charge. Granting amnesty to Good Samaritans is a simple answer. The Liberals should move to pass this bill as quickly as possible.

Measures like the ones the federal government has introduced to date have their limits, however. They don’t stem the tide of dangerous, unregulated drugs that are readily available on our streets, nor do they address the myriad of reasons why people consume drugs in the first place.

Larger — and, importantly, more impactful — solutions are still necessary, including reversing dozens of mandatory minimum sentence laws related to drug use and repealing The Respect for Communities Act, which was introduced by the Conservatives as a means of creating barriers to opening supervised drug consumption facilities.

Innovative, scientifically proven substitution therapies to address the harms caused by addiction to illicit substances should also be encouraged. This includes clearing the way for physicians to offer heroin-assisted treatment in cases where methadone maintenance treatment has failed.

When we recognize that all substance use is a public health issue, not a law enforcement issue, the blueprint for the way forward is to ensure that Canada’s drug policies are based on the best available evidence and aligned with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

 -- Written by Katrina Pacey and Donald MacPherson. This op-ed was originally published in the National Post.

Katrina Pacey is the executive director of the Pivot Legal Society. Donald MacPherson is the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

Photo Toronto Public Health