News / Vancouver

Feds 'taking far too long' on opioids

Declare emergency: B.C. deputy health officer

Deadly opioid overdoses per 100,000 population in provinces across Canada in 2016, according to Public Health Agency of Canada data.

Courtesy Health Canada

Deadly opioid overdoses per 100,000 population in provinces across Canada in 2016, according to Public Health Agency of Canada data.

British Columbia's second most powerful physician has criticized Ottawa's sluggish response to an overdose crisis on track to exceed 3,000 deaths nationwide this year.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s Deputy Provincial Health Officer, told Metro that while new federal measures announced this month are important, they're far too late — and the feds have a lot of catching up to do, fast.

"The federal government is coming around slowly to some of these things we've been pushing for some time," she said in a phone interview. "But it's still taking far too long for things to move, in my opinion, at the federal level.

"My personal belief, which I've expressed to my colleagues in the federal government, is it would be helpful to have a declaration (of emergency) as a way to raise awareness and focus attention on what needs to be done."

Henry is an associate professor in UBC's School of Population of Public Health and is a former Provincial Executive Medical Director of the B.C.Centre for Disease Control.

She was appointed to work under Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall, who declared a B.C.-wide public health emergency in April 2016 and has spoken out repeatedly in favour of harm reduction and overdose prevention initiatives, including prescription heroin and safer opioid substitution treatments.

And although drug user advocates themselves have criticized B.C. for moving too slowly as deaths mounted, Henry said the declaration of emergency enabled the province to respond more nimbly and to better collect data on the crisis.

"The B.C. one has helped immensely for us," she said. "It's allowed us to gather information and focused people's attention.

"We've done things we would not have not been able to do otherwise."

Across Canada last year, opioids — synthetic painkillers such as fentanyl and Oxycontin — killed more than 2,800 people last year, according to Health Canada. They are on track to exceed 3,000 deaths this year as the crisis worsens.

On Nov. 15, federal health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announced a series of measures to address the epidemic, based on what she called a "comprehensive and evidence-based approach to save lives."

The measures included a pilot project to offer a "safer pharmaceutical alternative" to illegal drugs — such as hydromorphone, already a proven success in B.C. As well, Ottawa vowed to support drug-checking services and a "streamlined protocol for temporary overdose prevention sites" after years of federal restrictions on their emergence.

"This is nothing short of tragic," the minister stated. "… The roots of this crisis are complex and no one actor has the power to change the current course of events … We must all continue to work together to turn the tide on this crisis."

But the federal New Democrats slammed the government's refusal to declare an emergency, which they explained would give Ottawa the legal authority to approve more overdose prevention facilities thanks to Canada's Emergencies Act.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who supports the decriminalization of all drugs in response to the crisis, called for such a declaration during a visit to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Nov. 2.

“Right now we’re hitting 3,000 deaths a year across Canada,” he told Metro. “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.”

According to Henry, streamlining the supervised consusitemption site approval process is one of the most important initiatives to come out of Ottawa this month. But it will take a much broader approach she said.

"There's no one piece of the problem," she said. "… And this is not just a B.C. problem. It seems to have come into Canada from the west, but now nobody is immune to it."

An Oct. 2 open letter from drug reform advocates Collective Resistance to Injustice — and endorsed by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs (CAPUD), and both Vancouver and Toronto Overdose Prevention Societies — also urges Ottawa to declare "the opiate crisis as a national public health emergency," to "fast track" prescription heroin, and "end drug prohibition through drug decriminalization with long-term goals of legalization and regulation of controlled substances."

In October, U.S. President Donald Trump declared the opioid overdose crisis — which killed an estimated 64,000 Americans last year, according to the Centre for Disease Control — a national emergency.

"This epidemic is a national health emergency," he told reporters. "Nobody has seen anything like what is going on now."

—With files from Jen St. Denis and The Associated Press

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