The opioid crisis is here, there’s no denying that.
According to the International Narcotics Control Board’s 2016 annual report, the number of deaths associated with synthetic opioids like fentanyl in Canada jumped 75 per cent from 2015 to 2016.
Last November, a private member’s bill was passed by the House of Commons to shield people at the scene of an overdose emergency from possession charges. Known as the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, it is up for final debate in the House, after the Senate made an amendment to extend the legal amnesty, in Ottawa today.
Update — May 4, 2017: The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act received royal assent on Thursday, meaning it now the law of the land. Health Minister Jane Philpott told reporters after the final vote that it’s a “good news day” because drug users will now be able to dial 911 without fear of prosecution. “The difference between life and death may be that 911 phone call.”
Why was it proposed?
One of the main reasons why people don’t call 911 when someone overdoses is a fear that they will be prosecuted in some way. Bill C-224 seeks to curb that fear by providing amnesty to those making the call.
Liberal MP Ron McKinnon introduced the bill to the House in May 2016. During the second reading of the bill, McKinnon said, “the most compelling testimony came from the drug-using community.”
“That community does not feel safe and does fear law enforcement in an overdose situation.”
What does it do? The bill was introduced as an amendment to Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Initially, it proposed protecting people who called 911 at the scene of an overdose, but it was modified earlier this year. The amended bill now seeks to include immunity from prosecution for people who call 911, but do not remain at the scene, and also those who in calling or being at the scene, would be violating conditional sentencing, pretrial release, probation, or parole conditions. These exemptions would only be in relation to offenses related to possession charges.
Advocates have long been calling for Good Samaritan laws, which are in place in a number of American states and in Europe.
What else is the government doing to combat the opioid crisis?
In the face of a mounting death toll, provincial and federal authorities have taken a number of steps to try to combat the crisis, although many on the front lines say more is necessary.
In October, Health Canada made naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, available without a prescription, in nasal spray form or as an injectible.
Canada has also approved the use of prescription heroin to treat patients with severe addictions and recently the government said it would make it easier to import the substance.
Ottawa has sped up the process by which safe injection sites gain approval, replacing the 26 criteria that cities had to meet, with five general ones.
Still, criticism remains that officials are simply not doing enough. At an event hosted by VICE on marijuana legalization with Justin Trudeau last week, Toronto harm reduction worker Zoë Dodd took the prime minister to task, urging him to decriminalize all drugs, as Portugal has done, to help address the opioid crisis. Trudeau said he wasn’t there yet.