OTTAWA — Public health officials across the country are seriously considering increasing the supply of safer opioids to quell a crisis that newly released data show helped claim more than 2,000 lives in the first half of the year.
Canada’s chief public health officer said Wednesday a toxic drug supply is a key part of Canada’s opioid epidemic.
Creating a safer opioid supply is “being actively reviewed and discussed” with provinces and territories, Dr. Theresa Tam said, and will require exploring what treatments people require.
Tam said clamping down on the market-driven supply of illicit drugs won’t be easy, adding she also hopes Canadians come to understand the seriousness of the problem.
“Across Canada, not everybody is on the same page,” Tam said. “I think my plea is an escalated, compassionate response. To implement a lot of these measures, you need society to be on side.”
British Columbia’s provincial health officer praised the decision to look at a more safe supply — something the province has long pushed for.
“Right now, the issue that we are dealing with in B.C. and increasing across the country, is the poisonous, toxic street-drug supply,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“That is what is killing people in this province right now. We know, that coupled with the stigma and the fact that people who have addictions, they need these drugs. It is not like it is a choice and they can say ‘Oh, I’m not going to take them anymore.’”
Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, has said a safer supply of opioids is a “no-brainer” to ensure people are not forced to turn to a “deadly, illegal market.”
Figures released Wednesday by the Public Health Agency show that 94 per cent of opioid-related deaths this year were classified as “accidental poisonings.” Nearly 72 per cent were unintentional deaths involving highly toxic fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances.
Fentanyl — a highly potent and addictive opioid — is estimated to be up to 100 times stronger than morphine and is commonly mixed into opioids sold on the street, meaning users don’t know the potency of the drugs they take.
The Canadian Institute for Health Information also reported data on a 27-per-cent increase in hospitalizations due to “opioid-related poisonings” over the past five years. Hospitalization rates last year were 2.5 times higher in smaller communities, with populations between 50,000 and 100,000, compared to Canada’s largest cities, the institute said.
Canadian health-care experts have also encouraged Ottawa to adopt Portugal’s approach to drug policy, which decriminalizes limited amounts of drugs for personal use, while offering education and social supports. Henry argued the Liberals should consider decriminalization.
“The federal government at this point is not look at decriminalizing people at a national basis,” Henry said.
”We are facing a crisis in B.C. where we need to do more.”