Canada plans to reduce overdose rates with new funding, Liberals stress crisis impact

Alex Delongchamp and Gurman Tatla take part in a mass group naloxone training seminar during International Overdose Awareness Day at Centennial Square in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday Aug. 31, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Health Canada is taking new strides to help address substance-use-related harms as $37 million in federal funding is set to go towards “improving health outcomes” for those at risk.

Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health, made the announcement at Western University in London, Ont., on Friday, outlining that the funds will be divided amongst 42 projects across the country through Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP).

“Every day across Canada, including here in London, family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors from all walks of life endure the unspeakable loss of losing a loved one to overdose,” she said. “As part of our bold approach to this crisis fortified by new investments in Budget 2023, our government is supporting communities in their work to address substance use harms.”

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Budget 2023 proposed an investment of $359 million in support of a renewed Canadian Drug and Substances Strategy. Of this funding, $144 million is included to support community-led and not-for-profit organizations across the country over the next five years.

The additional $37 million announced Friday includes supporting projects in British Columbia, Manitoba, Nunavut and Ontario, and will “help to provide people who use drugs in these regions with greater access to prevention, harm reduction and treatment services.”

Left to right: Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos, professor François Lagugné-Labarthet, Liberal MP Arielle Kayabaga, Sonja Burke, director of harm reduction services at Regional HIV-AIDS Connection, Minister Carolyn Bennett and Matt Davison, dean of science at Western University. Marshall Healey / 980 CFPL

According to the ministry, this includes people “disproportionately affected” by substance use harms or “who face barriers accessing services such as youth, Indigenous and 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals.”

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Bennet highlighted that since 2016, more than 30,000 people have died of an overdose in Canada.

“According to recent national data, there were approximately 20 opioid-related deaths per day from January to September 2022,” she said. “Here in Ontario, we have the second highest rate of opioid overdose deaths and lost over 4,000 lives in the last two years alone.

“We’re here because of the toxic drug and overdose crisis, which continues to exact such a deadly toll across the country, including here in London,” she added.

London North Centre MP Peter Fragiskatos stressed the impact of the crisis in the city, saying that “our community is deeply challenged by the impacts of substance use and addiction.”

“Families and communities across the country continue to lose loved ones due to drug overdose. We’re talking about sons and daughters, mothers and fathers,” he said. “It’s incumbent on all of us, particularly those in elected office, to do whatever they can to address what is admittedly a crisis.”

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In working towards relief, a Western University professor has teamed up with local startup company SCATR Inc. to pilot an innovative drug-checking technology project.

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The project aims to allow those who use drugs at safe consumption sites to understand what “dangerous fillers” and other drugs, such as fentanyl analogues, might be found in their sample in an effort to encourage informed decisions about use.

Left: Ari Foreman and Alex Boukin, founders of SCATR Inc., and François Lagugné-Labarthet, a professor of chemistry at Western University in London, Ont. Marshall Healey / 980 CFPL

According to the research team, the drug-checking device uses Raman spectroscopy, a “non-destructive process that analyzes how light interacts with chemical bonds within a material” in order to provide detailed information about its “molecular composition and chemical structure.”

François Lagugné-Labarthet, a professor of chemistry at Western and expert in Raman spectroscopy, said that the technology, which is no bigger than two shoeboxes, can analyze the composition of street drugs in under 15 minutes.

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“The devastating effects of the opioid crisis are on the news almost every day and the fatalities are staggering,” he said. “Our hope is to help find solutions to reduce those numbers.”

He added that thanks to the new grant from Health Canada’s SUAP, the technology is being rolled out to 11 safe consumption sites across Ontario, Nova Scotia and B.C., including a new permanent safe consumption site run by Regional HIV-AIDS Connection in London.

“This really is a game changer,” said Sonja Burke, director of harm reduction services at Regional HIV-AIDS Connection, in a statement. “It will provide people who use drugs a way to have more information at their fingertips and empower them in their decision making.”

At each site, after the drug is checked, data is entered about whether its makeup is the same as what was expected, whether there were any adverse reactions, including the possibility of an overdose, and whether or not the individual checking their sample changed their behaviour by choosing to reduce their dose or not to use it at all following the results.

The team hopes to eventually expand the use of the technology across Canada and in other countries to help address the opioid crisis on a global scale.

“Thank you to Western University, as well as to all the organizations that received funding for their continued dedication towards reducing stigma, improving access to substance use supports, and inspiring change within our communities,” Bennett added.

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– with files from Global News’ Marshall Healey

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