By Trevor Busch
Canada is experiencing a growing number of opioid overdoses and deaths across the country, and the severity of this crisis requires governments to work together and move as fast as possible in order to confront the issue from all sides.
As part of the federal government’s commitment to take action to address the national opioid crisis, Health Canada is proposing to move forward with plans to restrict six chemicals used in the production of fentanyl, originally put forward by Senator Vern White’s Senate Public Bill S-225, An Act to Amend the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act. This regulatory proposal would achieve the intent of Senator White’s Bill in an expeditious fashion, and add these substances to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) and the Precursor Control Regulations (PCR), meaning that their unauthorized importation and exportation would be illegal.
“That controls a substance that’s very dangerous out there,” said Bow River MP Martin Shields. “It’s interesting that a lot of those chemical formulas were developed quite a few years ago, from what I’ve read, and there was no use of them at that time, but now as they’ve developed, other people have taken those and are using them for developing the wrong things.”
Fentanyl misuse first became prominent with the diversion of pharmaceutical forms of the drug, such as the patch. However, in recent months the RCMP has reported an increase in domestic production of illicit fentanyl. Health Canada regularly monitors the emergence of new substances onto the illicit drug market and works closely with law enforcement to address them as quickly and efficiently as possible.
By proposing to schedule chemicals that are used to make illicit fentanyl, the Government of Canada is using another tool to fight the opioid crisis by addressing the production and supply sides of the problem.
The proposed scheduling of fentanyl precursors complements the new opioid action plan announced by Health Minister Jane Philpott in June 2016. The plan includes a national opioid summit to be held this fall, and focuses on better informing Canadians about the risks of opioids, supporting better prescribing practices, reducing easy access to unnecessary opioids, supporting better treatment options, and improving the national evidence base. The government also supports harm reduction strategies, including safe injection sites.
“Thanks to the work already done by Senator White, we are able to quickly take this step to restrict chemicals used in the production of fentanyl,” said Philpott in a press release. “Our government is taking a comprehensive, collaborative, compassionate and evidence-based approach to addressing this public health crisis. There is much more work to be done, and I look forward to convening a summit this fall to work with my colleagues from across Canada to address the ongoing opioid crisis.”
The federal government is also supporting MP Ron McKinnon’s Private Member’s Bill, the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, which would help encourage individuals who witness an overdose to call for emergency help.
Canada and the U.S. have reached the status of having the highest per capita volume of opioids dispensed in the world, while according to some reports, two people die from an opioid overdose every day in Ontario and one of every eight deaths in Ontario among young adults is related to an opioid overdose. In the U.S., over 14,000 people died as a result of opioid overdoses in 2014. B.C. is currently struggling with a huge influx of fentanyl that led to 238 deaths in the first half of this year, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency in that province.
Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann has been dismayed by Associate Minister of Health Brandy Payne’s response to his call for a Public Health Emergency over a growing number of opioid deaths.
“Instead of using evidence to show the government is doing all it can to prevent more deaths, the Associate Minister instead chose to raise the spectre of police knocking in doors and confiscating private property,” Swann stated in a press release. “This is ludicrous, public relations spin at its lowest. Worse, it is disrespectful to the hundreds of families torn by the tragedy of this epidemic.”
In the first six months of 2016 there were 150 fatal overdoses in Alberta, while during the same period in 2015, there were 139 deaths. The Alberta government and its partners have taken a number of actions aimed at curbing fentanyl’s impact in the province, including providing $3 million to Alberta Health Services for additional opioid replacement treatment spaces and counselling supports, tripling the province’s supply of publicly funded naloxone kits since December 2015 and increasing the number of naloxone distribution sites to 853 locations, including more than 600 community pharmacies. In addition, ministerial orders have been extended to allow registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe naloxone, and paramedics, EMTs and EMRs to administer naloxone.
“Health Canada’s announcement to move forward on restricting six chemicals used in the production of fentanyl will benefit Albertans and Canadians,” said Kathleen Ganley, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General, in a press release. “This important move reflects Alberta’s advocacy for changes at the federal level, and we thank the Government of Canada for their partnership. Our government asked for this last fall after our police partners, the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police (AACP) passed resolutions relating to limiting access to the precursor drugs used to produce fentanyl. This government is focused on reducing the availability of fentanyl and other drugs in the province. Alberta’s police services know that precursor drugs are available in Alberta as they have already discovered large quantities of these deadly chemicals here.”