News / Vancouver

Jagmeet Singh calls on Ottawa to declare national health emergency over opioid crisis

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh toured an overdose prevention site in the Downtown Eastside Thursday and learned how to use Narcan.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh learns how to administer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone at an overdose prevention site in Vancouver on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.

Jen St. Denis / Metro Order this photo

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh learns how to administer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone at an overdose prevention site in Vancouver on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on Ottawa to declare the opioid overdose crisis a national health emergency during a visit to a Vancouver overdose prevention site.

“Right now we’re hitting 3,000 deaths a year across Canada,” said Singh. “If this was made a public health crisis, these sites that are actually saving lives, these overdose prevention sites would be brought under the legal framework. There would be funding, they would get support. It would literally mean more lives could be saved.”

Singh learned how to administer the overdose-reversing drug Narcan inside the trailer behind the Downtown Eastside Street Market at 62 E. Hastings St., which is used by 700 people everyday. He spoke about his party’s support of decriminalizing drugs for personal use. He is the only federal leader to support decriminalization.

“We can’t solve a health crisis with a criminal justice system,” Singh said.

The overdose prevention site at 62 E. Hastings St., which began as tent in September 2016, was the first unofficial overdose prevention site to open as the death toll began to climb throughout the latter half of 2016.

It operated outside the law, but saved lives — and in December 2016, B.C.’s then-health minister, Terry Lake, announced the province would support health authorities to open more of the informal sites, where volunteers or staff are on hand to call first responders, administer first aid and give Narcan in case of an overdose.

The federal health ministry has made it quicker and easier to set up supervised injection sites, such as Vancouver’s InSite, where a nurse is on hand to make sure drug users use safely and offer other social services.

But opening overdose prevention sites is still quicker and easier. Several are now open in Vancouver and other B.C. cities, but the idea has faced pushback in cities like Ottawa.

Declaring a federal health emergency, something the federal Liberals have so far declined to do, would give the federal government the legal authority to open more overdose sites under the Emergencies Act, said Don Davies, NDP member of parliament for Vancouver-Kingsway. He compared it to opening emergency clinics to deal with a pandemic.

Sarah Blyth, one of the founders of the site at 62 E. Hastings St., said people from all over Canada call her for advice on how to set up overdose prevention sites. Her advice: put up the tent now, and don’t wait for official approval.

“It forces people into action,” Blyth said. For instance, when two city councillors in Nanaimo opened an overdose prevention site in the parking lot at City Hall, the civic building shut down over safety concerns. Shortly after, Vancouver Island Health opened its own site.

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