It’s easy and it saves lives: Opioid overdose prevention & response in Canada

In 2013, 308 people lost their lives due to illicit drug overdoses in BC alone. The worst part? Drug-related deaths from opiate overdose are entirely preventable.

And not in the sense that “well if people didn’t use drugs… there wouldn’t be overdoses.” Because while that’s essentially true, we know that people will use drugs. One hundred years of prohibiting drugs and arresting and incarcerating people who sell and use drugs hasn’t stopped that.

We need to be realistic and practical. Drug use does happen and it will happen. So let’s get on with preventing deaths and injuries from drug overdose. Here at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, we’ve worked with experts across the country to come up with set of policy changes that can save lives and make Canada safer for all.

Click here to download: Opioid overdose prevention & response in Canada

While putting together this brief, we met many dedicated, compassionate people who work in frontline overdose prevention programs across Canada. One of the most pragmatic and effective interventions to prevent overdose injury and death is the “take-away naloxone program.” Based on 180 similar initiatives in the US, the program involves distributing overdose response kits – dubbed take-home-naloxone kits – to people who have been trained to prevent, recognize and respond to an overdose. Naloxone is a 40-year old medication that when administered during an opiate overdose reverses the effects of the drug. It has no narcotic effect and people cannot become dependent on this drug.

Streetworks in Edmonton pioneered this initiative in Canada and similar programs have spread throughout Canada. The country’s most robust overdose program – “take-home naloxone” (THN) – can be found at British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control’s (BCCDC) harm reduction resource Toward the Heart.

Through a series of participating organizations throughout BC, the naloxone program operates in 35 sites, from large urban hubs such as Vancouver and Surrey, to smaller rural centres such as Cranbrook, Campbell River and Fort St. John. Nearly 1000 people have been trained including staff and volunteers at health and social service agencies, as well as friends and family members of people who use drugs. Over 600 kits have been dispensed to clients who use opioids and various resource materials are being developed to assist community partners to increase the reach of the program. Since its origins in 2012, 55 overdoses have been reversed.

While these simple yet effective initiatives are demonstrably preventing overdoses, significant challenges prevent these programs from being scaled up. Naloxone remains a prescription-only medication, and it’s costly and not covered by provincial drug plans. An even more significant challenge is the lack of a national Good Samaritan law, one that prevents people from being arrested and charged with drug possession if they call for help during an emergency. Eleven US states have passed Good Samaritan laws, often with bipartisan support from legislators.

Our hope is that this policy brief will help support efforts to clear away the barriers blocking overdose programs. That’s the most realistic way to prevent drug-related deaths from opiate overdose.

For more information, read the full policy brief, here.

Donald MacPherson

About Donald MacPherson

Donald MacPherson is the Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and one of Canada’s leading figures in drug policy. In 2000 he published Vancouver’s groundbreaking Four Pillars Drug Strategy that precipitated a broad public discussion on issues related to addiction.

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