Far too many people are dying from drug overdoses. This public health emergency can affect anyone, whether those drugs are purchased legally or illegally.

Most recently, deaths from fentanyl — a powerful opioid drug that is produced legally as well as in clandestine labs — have increased dramatically. Within the last six years, deaths involving fentanyl have skyrocketed in Canada’s four largest provinces — from a doubling in Quebec to a 20-fold increase in Alberta. Between 2009 and 2014, 655 deaths have been attributed to fentanyl. In many cases, it appears that a high number of individuals thought they were using heroin, oxycodone, cocaine or another substance and mistakenly took fentanyl.

The tragedy is that overdoses can be prevented and need not be fatal if the right measures are taken. These include: increasing access to naloxone, an emergency medication that reverses the effects of opioids; “low threshold” programs such as supervised consumption rooms where medical care is readily available in the event of an overdose; programs to test street drugs that inform consumers of the composition and dosage of drugs they have purchased on the illegal and unregulated market; and legislative changes that encourage people to call 911 during an overdose event and alleviate their fears of being charged with drug offences by police. An urgent and comprehensive response from all levels of government is needed.

Priorities for Action

  • immediately rescheduling naloxone to make it a non-prescription drug and get it into the hands of people who use drugs, their friends and families, emergency services and others who might witness an overdose;
  • providing naloxone in various formulations, such as intranasal, pre-filled syringes, or auto injectors, to make it easier to use; and
  • providing overdose training and naloxone kits on release from federal prisons.
  • Pass “Good Samaritan” legislation that gives limited immunity from arrest for those who, in the presence of an overdose, call 911 to get assistance.
  • Implement projects to test street drugs to detect toxic contaminants and the presence of fentanyl.
  • Develop policies to enable and guide the implementation of harm reduction services such as naloxone distribution and the testing of street drugs.


Further reading:

Prescription for Life

Toward the Heart

International Overdose Awareness Day

Overdose Policy Brief



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