The new data released on Thursday by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) points to a worsening overdose death crisis across the country, with British Columbia being hit the hardest with 1,525 overdose deaths in 2018.
“The epidemic of opioid overdoses continues to be the most challenging public health crisis in recent decades,” the co-chairs of the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses said in a press statement.
The numbers show that at least 11,577 people in Canada died of an opioid overdose from 2016 to 2018. Most of those deaths stem from the illicit drug supply, which has been tainted with bootleg fentanyl or carfentanil, not from prescription drugs. The data varies depending on the region, with some provinces and territories providing more overdose death information than others.
“To respond to the crisis, we must continue to address the illegal drug supply and to work together to implement additional harm reduction measures,” the co-chairs, Dr. Theresa Tam of PHAC and Saskatchewan’s chief medical officer Dr. Saqib Shahab, continued in their statement.
A study published last week by the academic journal Addiction found that the overdose death toll in B.C. would be twice as high had the province not implemented a host of harm reduction measures since it declared a public health emergency in 2016.
The researchers analyzed data from 2016 and 2017 and found that initiatives such as providing take-home naloxone, overdose prevention sites and medication-assisted therapy possibly prevented 3,000 more deaths. Tens of thousands of naloxone kits have been distributed across B.C. since then, and health agencies have expanded programs that offer people with addictions access to pharmaceutical-grade opioids as an alternative to the unpredictable street supply.
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In December, Tam, Canada‘s chief medical officer, said she was reviewing access to a safer opioid supply with provincial and territorial governments.
“Across Canada, not everybody is on the same page,” said Tam at the time. “I think my plea is an escalated, compassionate response. To implement a lot of these measures, you need society to be on side.”
Medical experts and harm reduction advocates have been urging the federal government to decriminalize the possession of illicit substances as another measure to curb overdoses. However, the Liberal government has repeatedly said it would not do so.
On Wednesday, a parliamentary health committee studying methamphetamine use across Canada recommended the decriminalization of simple drug possession. Federal Liberal backbencher Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, an outspoken advocate on drug policy, told CBC News this week he plans to introduce a decriminalization bill in Parliament.
“We should treat drug use as a health issue,” said Erskine-Smith. “As politicians, we have to do the right thing, not the easy thing.”