It’s time for Ottawa to step up its response to Canada’s opioid crisis

Canada’s “muddle through” approach to the opioid crisis – doing what it takes to keep people alive, but not focusing on efforts to address the root causes – has yet again come to light. During an October 23 news conference, Ontario Provincial Police say they seized at least 1,150 doses of fentanyl in three simultaneous police interventions in southern Ontario. Toronto and Hamilton announced last week that they are closing roughly 20 illicit drug injection sites. Quebec has reported an increase in the number of fentanyl overdoses. Opioid overdoses are now the leading cause of death among young people. And a recent Public Health Agency of Canada report shows this year will mark the eighth consecutive year of an increase in the number of opioid overdose deaths, reaching 1,900 deaths by the end of 2018. In some parts of the country, more than double the number of prescription opioids have been prescribed than at the height of the last epidemic. The situation is particularly urgent in B.C., where most of Canada’s opioid epidemic took hold. There, nearly 20 percent of all deaths and more than one-third of the opioid-related hospitalizations are caused by fentanyl.

There is, however, hope. Many Canadian cities have stepped up to help address the crisis. Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Halifax, Victoria, Winnipeg, and Ottawa all have separate programs to stop the flow of drugs or to provide specific services for people with addictions and vulnerable communities. The availability of supply-reducing street drugs that do not include fentanyl has improved and lead to a decrease in overdose rates across much of Canada.

By contrast, the federal government has not made a sustained effort to reduce the impact of opioids and related health conditions. Not one Canadian city has developed a comprehensive strategy to manage opioid overdoses and related issues. Ottawa has added dozens of harm reduction efforts, but the Conservatives eliminated 12 programs across the country.

The federal government’s approach is not suited to addressing the complex opioid problem across the country. While most provinces face a funding shortfall, Ottawa plans to give provinces a cheque for $600 million over five years. It will then wait for the provinces to decide what they want to do with the money. It needs to shift its focus to emergency response, rather than only funding and supporting prevention and recovery projects.

Ottawa must lead. The federal government has faced extreme pressure to step up its response to the drug crisis. Ottawa must let the provinces make their case for more funding. But even a small amount of investment could have a significant impact, and it would pay for itself, even in less-wealthy provinces. The government must help everyone in Canada get the help they need to recover from addiction, provided the federal government’s responsibility is clearly defined. If it does not, cities will have to shoulder the burden.

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