Thousands of Canadians needlessly die of drug overdose every year, and every year, the number grows. From 2000 to 2010, prescription opioid usage in Canada grew more than 200%. In 2002, the Health Officers’ Council of BC reported that there were 958 overdose deaths in Canada. In 2016, an estimated 2,458 Canadians died of opioid overdoses. This year, British Columbia alone is likely to have more than 1,400 overdose deaths, while in Ontario, two people die of opioid overdoses every day. Canadians are the second largest consumer of prescription opioids, second only to our neighbours, the United States. And without awareness and appropriate harm reduction, the overdose crisis will be magnified year after year.
Raising Awareness and Remembering
International Overdose Awareness Day was born on August 31st, 2001 – a day dedicated to commemorating friends, family and partners that have been lost to overdose. By honouring those lost to drug-related deaths, we share our stories and can create a community of support that will help improve the lives of people who use drugs. Anybody can help raise awareness by participating in any of the 48 International Overdose Awareness Day events across Canada. Some of our board members will be attending events in British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario (find them on our facebook page).
Today, we should also reflect why students and youth should care about sensible drug policy, and how we can make a difference in our communities.
Barriers to Harm Reduction for Young People
Last year in BC, 1 in 5 people who were lost to overdose were under the age of 30. Youth encounter many opportunities to engage in substance use. Fentanyl has been found in certain non-opioid drugs that are often used in social settings (e.g. cocaine), which presents a risk to young people who may use these drugs without knowledge of their composition and without having built up a tolerance to opioids.
While important life-saving interventions like naloxone have been made more widely available in recent years, youth may experience barriers to accessing these services. They may not know about naloxone or where to get it, or they may not want to access it for fear of being stigmatized for their drug use. This has been reported at some campuses, where, in order to get a naloxone kit and training, a student needs to identify as an illicit drug user. Understandably, students might fear academic or other repercussions if they admit to campus administration that they use drugs.
Truly Protecting the Youth
CSSDP has been working with our chapters on naloxone training for students and youth in different cities across Canada. UBC Okanagan chapter held weekly drop-in sessions on campus during the Spring; CSSDP Vancouver recently held a similar session for students in the city.
We are encouraging our chapters to work with their campus administration to ensure that Good Samaritan policies are enacted on campus. (Note: Canada has Good Samaritan policies around calling 9-1-1 for overdoses, but each campus might approach the issue differently with respect to academic consequences.)
We are currently working on a project to map harm reduction service locations in different cities across the country. For now, you can find a list of where you can obtain naloxone for free in Ontario, participate in British Columbia’s Toward the Heart take home naloxone program, at certain locations in Quebec, as well as several other provinces and territories. Another related awareness map is Celebrating Lost Loved Ones, an online memorial of more than 1000 stories of loved ones lost to the ongoing opioid epidemic.
Public Health and Human Rights First
Many people use drugs for many different reasons. Criminalizing people for their drug use only serves to further stigmatize and marginalize people, which can lead to additional social harms, especially for those already self-medicating or suffering from physical or mental health issues. We can no longer ignore that our current approach to drugs (i.e. drug prohibition) has failed to achieve its goal of preventing drug use. Right now, we are dealing with an opioid crisis that has been made far worse by a contaminated drug supply.
As long as we continue with drug prohibition, we will continue to see a toxic drug supply. While we are happy that the government has begun taking steps away from drug prohibition by developing framework for regulating cannabis, we think it’s time to consider alternative approaches to prohibition for all illicit drugs.
As we stand with thousands upon thousands of people worldwide that are affected by countless preventable overdose deaths each year, we are reminded why we advocate every day for evidence-based drug policies that improve the lives of people who use drugs in Canada.
We encourage you to attend an overdose awareness day event near you! Join us in our efforts to raise awareness, promote harm reduction and change ineffective Canadian laws with a more sensible, evidence-based approach to drug policy by attending a local chapter meeting or starting a CSSDP chapter on your campus!
Stephanie is a doctoral student in population and public health at the University of British Columbia, where she is currently undertaking research to better understand the links between cannabis, opioids, and drug-related morbidity.