By Jane Philpott
In 2019, about 12 people die every day from an opioid-related overdose. It’s Canada’s most significant public health threat since 1919, when 55,000 people died from the Spanish flu. Not only are opioid-related deaths among the top 10 causes of mortality in our country, but the number grows each year. The likelihood of death from overdose is higher than ever because illicit—otherwise known as “street”—drugs are increasingly contaminated with fentanyl and its analogues, contributing to 82 per cent of accidental opioid-related deaths in Canada.
This is a national public health emergency. But you wouldn’t know it from the discourse in our recent federal election. It barely registered in public debates or party communications, probably because the solutions to the crisis are politically unpopular. The way out is difficult to explain, and few are ready to push for it.
The topic must not be dismissed as one affecting only marginalized people. It’s estimated that a million Canadians are at risk of exposure to toxic opioid products. They are our relatives and neighbours: people use drugs in city centres but also in suburbs, small towns and remote regions; they use drugs in urban areas, but also alone at home or in the washroom cubicles of your neighbourhood fast food restaurant.
If you don’t already know someone who has lost a loved one because of an accidental opioid overdose, it’s only a matter of time until you will. If every life is of value, then it’s time to get beyond our prejudices and political biases and implement the steps that will save lives.
The solutions are not mysterious. In the last four years Canada has made progress on drug policy. We made naloxone (a drug that temporarily reverses the effects of opioids) available without prescription and in multiple formats. We passed Bill C-37 to reintroduce harm reduction and facilitate approval of supervised consumptions sites. We overturned a ban on use of prescription heroin for people with substance dependence, and enabled bulk imports.
Canada can do more by implementing international best practices. Two changes can be adapted from drug policies in Europe. Following Portugal’s lead, we should decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs—a 10-day personal supply. Following Switzerland’s lead, we should expand access to safe supply.