August 31st marked the 15th annual International Overdose Awareness Day. With events held around the globe, people living within a myriad of different drug policy frameworks put out a unified message: our friends and family are dying preventable deaths, and not enough is being done to protect our loved ones. Here in Canada, we are fortunate to have a progressive government that has already begun making changes to incorporate harm reduction measures into our public health policies, but it’s important to also recognize the work that there is still to be done in terms of broadening public access to key services.
A few examples of the effective harm reduction measures we have in Canada are our needle exchange programs and safe injection sites, such as Insite in Vancouver, which allow drug users and addicts to exchange their dirty needles for clean ones (keeping dirty needles off the streets) and even allows them to inject their drugs in a clinical, supervised setting as opposed to consuming their drugs in public spaces, or alone where they would be at an increased risk of overdose-related death. While supervised injection sites like Insite have been successfully serving communities in Canada since 2003, there are still barriers that stand in the way of public health.
One such obstacle is Bill-C2, the ironically-named Respect for Communities Act, which makes it next to impossible to open safe injection sites. Even the Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, has expressed opposition to safe injection sites despite their demonstrated benefits from the sites that do exist in Canada. When the leader of our country’s capital has a misinformed opinion on a pressing social issue, it impedes progress and hurts the better interest of the public.
While he issued a letter addressing our concerns, acknowledging that every 11 days we lose a member of our Ottawa community to a preventable, drug-related overdose, he has yet to change his views on safe injection sites, despite staggering evidence that safe injection lowers the incidence of overdose death and blood-borne disease. Safe Injection Sites have been shown to benefit entire communities, reducing drug-related crime and syringe sharing, as well as providing the support many drug users need to enter drug treatment programs and other health services.
Another big win for harm reduction is that Canada recently dropped the requirement for a prescription to obtain naloxone, rendering it available for free over the counter. Naloxone is a crucial factor in fighting the opioid crisis we are currently facing in Canada, as it works similarly to an Epipen but rather than stopping anaphylaxis, it can reverse an opiate-related overdose. It can literally stop an overdose in its tracks. With such an imperative, life-saving drug available to the public for free it’s hard to understand why the number of overdose deaths continues to rise, with a 31% increase in BC between 2014 and 2015.
The problem lies in accessibility to the public, with insufficient exposure for this tremendously important drug. People simply are not aware that they can walk into a pharmacy and ask for naloxone. While the government isn’t doing much in the way of outreach to at-risk drug users, luckily we have plenty of community-based naloxone training and things like Peer Overdose Prevention programs to help educate people on the benefits of harm reduction.
Overdose Awareness Day Events in Canada
The event that was held in Ottawa was truly an emotionally moving experience. An art installation served as a visual representation of the people we’ve lost within the Ottawa community, with empty shoes standing in the place of loved ones lost to preventable overdose deaths. There were brief descriptions sitting next to the empty shoes, including the age of the deceased and who they were to someone, to emphasize that drug users are not the ‘degenerates’ our society casts them as—they are our grandmothers, best friends, parents, children, brothers, sisters, and more.
Community members from diverse backgrounds were invited to speak on the topic at the foot of the Human Rights Monument in front of City Hall to illustrate a well-rounded image of the role of overdose in the wider Ottawa area and our role in creating change to stop it. From first responders listing brutal statistics, to addicts themselves sharing raw, personal stories, a very clear message was painted: our friends and family members are dying and the appropriate measures have yet to be taken to stop these preventable deaths.
An Algonquin College business student focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, Heather is fascinated by corporate social responsibility within the cannabis industry, with a passion for the relationship between food, health, and sustainability, and is an advocate for drug policy based on human rights and public health.
The Toronto event for International Overdose Awareness Day took place at a public health unit known as The Works. The center provides harm reduction equipment and services to drug users such as needle exchange and drop-in visits with nurses. The Works is also one of the proposed locations for supervised injection sites in Toronto. I was invited to the event by a friend who works for the Inner City Health Team which offers harm reduction services to homeless men.
The event celebrated the fatal overdose prevention drug called naloxone and individuals who had saved people’s’ lives by administering it during an overdose. These people were referred to as rescuers and were given a certificate of recognition for saving someone’s life. Naloxone, also known as Narcan, reverses the effects of opioid overdose. In Ontario, it is now carried by nurses and can be acquired in local pharmacies without a prescription.
The Works also had a memorial room with the pictures of people who had passed away from overdose, with messages written by their loved ones. It is vital to remember that real people die from drug use. The loss of life is not less significant because they used drugs. More effective policy could decrease drug related harm significantly. Needle exchange, widespread naloxone training and injection sites are all policies that decrease overdose deaths and disease transmission anywhere they are implemented. The criminalization of illicit drugs, heroin in particular, allow for impure and dangerous substances.
A 4th year University of Toronto undergrad majoring in political science and sociology, Kyle aims to get his master’s degree in public policy, currently works for a criminologist researching recidivism in the USA, and has been involved with CSSDP Toronto for a year prior to joining the national board.