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CANADA: Pressure is on for Liberals to make safer opioids available as overdose deaths rise


OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is facing pressure to make safer opioids available to people who use street drugs as overdose deaths continue to increase.

The push is coming from public-health advocates and from at least one Liberal MP, Toronto's Nathaniel Erksine-Smith.

"One of my constituents lost her nephew to the opioid crisis because of fentanyl and the lack of a safe supply," he said. "If we want to save lives, we know that thousands of Canadians are dying because of an unsafe supply. If we want to save lives, we need to make that supply safe."

Public-health experts are also advocating for removing of criminal sanctions for possession of small quantities of opioids to help to reduce stigma in seeking treatment, Erksine-Smith added.

British Columbia's provincial health officer has called for Ottawa to look at ways of supplying safer opioid drugs, saying B.C. and other parts of the country are grappling with a poisonous street-drug supply that is killing people because they can't tell what's in the drugs they use.

Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said it is necessary to address the toxicity of the drug supply to ultimately reduce the number of deaths.

His organization was part of a Canadian coalition that called on the government last fall to address the issue of supply, pointing to toxicology results from across Canada that reveal opioids purchased in the illegal market are often contaminated with fentanyl and its analogues. Those can be much more potent than the opioids users believe they are consuming, and the difference between an ordinary dose and a lethal one is tiny.

"When you are in an emergency and the stuff you can get illegally is largely contaminated and may kill you even if you are seeking to be safe, as most people are, then we need to figure out, 'OK, how do we substitute something safer for you to use instead of what you're currently purchasing on the street and that is killing too many people,' " Elliott said in an interview this week.

The opioid crisis is affecting every community in every province and territory, said NDP health critic Don Davies, adding that Canadians understand that people are losing their lives as a result of "poison street supply."

"Nobody is advocating drug use," he said. "But as a public-policy response, they recognize that at least if we can control the supply, we can keep people alive and that's a better public-policy approach than letting them die in the streets or alone in their homes."

Davies said he shares the concern of advocates who recently expressed concern that the federal Liberals won't want to address the issue in an election year. 

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said she asked her department to explore options to address the toxic supply in the fall, adding she looks forward to seeing advice from Canada's top public-health doctor Theresa Tam on how to move forward.

"When we've consulted with many stakeholders, professionals and also individuals that use drugs, they've indicated the issue of safe supply is something we should really be looking at," Petitpas Taylor said. "That's exactly what we are doing."

In a December interview, Tam told The Canadian Press that said clamping down on the market-driven supply of illicit drugs is not easy.

"I think my plea is an escalated, compassionate response," she said. "To implement a lot of these measures, you need society to be on side."

Tam's comments came after the Public Health Agency show that 94 per cent of opioid-related deaths in 2019 were classified as "accidental poisonings."

Nearly 72 per cent were unintentional deaths involving highly toxic fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances.

—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter.

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press