The number of drug overdose fatalities is on the rise in Canada, prompting lawmakers to discuss new measures to fight the opioid crisis.
More than 2,800 people died in Canada last year due to opioid-related overdoses, a recent report shows. It is likely that the number of fatalities will even increase for this year, Dr. Theresa Tam, country’s chief public health officer said.
Another figure shows an increased rate of hospitalization due to opioid-overdose hospitalization. Nowadays hospitals register 70% more admissions related to opioid toxicity than a decade ago.
“No area of Canada is necessarily safe from this crisis,” Dr. Tam said. While the alarming trends are visible across all Canada, Western provinces are more affected. Both British Columbia and Yukon report over 15 opioid-related deaths per 100,000 population, compared to – for instance – up to 4.9 in New Brunswick.
“It really comes down to how in the last few years, there’s just been this injection of these new compounds that are making the illicit opioid market incredibly volatile,” said Matthew Young, a senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse.
What’s Causing the Opioid Crisis?
One of the causes of death is fentanyl, an opioid and a class of painkillers that includes oxycodone and morphine. It is an extremely toxic substance – up to 100 times more toxic than morphine.
But death causes vary between provinces, for which measures applied in one region may not work elsewhere. For instance, street drugs e.g. illicit fentanyl are responsible for a large proportion of overdoses in British Columbia or Alberta. Yet for some other provinces, like Nova Scotia, fentanyl accounted for only 15% of the death toll. It was prescription painkillers that accounted for most deaths in that province.
Furthermore, there is no one patterns of drug consumption. “This is not a crisis involving only opioids,” Dr Tam explained. “Many of the overdoses involved a mix of substances. In fact, 84% of apparent opioid-related deaths also involved a substance that was not an opioid, adding to the complexity in addressing the crisis.”
Among substances contributing to the opioid crisis are alcohol, cocaine, and some anti-depressants like Valium or Ativan.
The issue has divided the government of Canada. Most agree to adopt measures that will decriminalize the drug use and reframe it as public health problem. In terms of prevention, the government puts emphasis on raising awareness of the long-term effects of using prescribed opioids. Lack of awareness is among primary causes of the opioid crisis.
That’s where the solidarity ends, though. Last year, Liberals overturned the ban of the previous administration, paving the path to legalization of heroin-maintenance programs. In theory, all Canadian doctors can make application to prescribe heroin. In practice, British Columbia is the only province for now that pursues this solution. Its proponents highlight that opioid-assisted therapy programs provide severely addicted persons with a “clean opioid”. These are safer for the consumer and offer addicts an alternative to engaging in criminal activities.
For the Conservatives, in turn, the opioid crisis would be better handled with expanding recovery treatment programs. They argue that providing supervised injections does not break the cycle of addiction. “I really do think we need to move beyond this kind of supervised injection, where government makes it quote-unquote safer to inject illicit drugs and to focus more on recovery and helping those who are addicted to get off drugs,” said Andrew Sheer, party’s leader.
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