August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day, a day of mourning for friends, family and communities who have lost loved ones. Aiming to destigmatize grieving a person who died a drug-related death, the day is also about raising awareness. Overdoses don’t have to be fatal and are all too often preventable. Though there are individual safety measures that can be taken, the best opportunity for intervention is actually in policy. The ideas listed in this post are not new and come from a movement led by people who use drugs.

Across Canada up to date statistics on overdose related deaths are hard to gather, often time coroners data taking years to be released.  Statistics vary from province to province, but we know that last year over 300 people died of overdose in BC, a quarter of those deaths attributed to fentanyl. In Ontario alone, drug-related overdose has become the leading cause of accidental death. With the federal election campaigns picking up, politicians need to take action to stop this disturbing trend in it’s tracks.

What are overdoses?

Overdoses usually refer to when too much of a drug is taken for a body to process. This could be caused by someone taking too much of a drug for their body or by mixing different drugs. There are many factors at play including what drugs are known, what doses are being taken and the tolerance of the person using. Read up on how to spot the signs of an overdose here. Because drugs are illegal they are often produced and then passed through the many hands of many dealers before hitting the street. Each dealer might have their own fillers, additives and cuts to add to the drug along the way. Sometimes the dealers aren’t even 100% sure what they are selling. But there is a solution.

1) Allow access to free drug checking.

Drug checking is a simple process of testing a drug with a reagent or in a lab to get a chemical reaction that confirms what drug is present in the sample. Especially with the rise of Fentanyl (a opiate that is about 50 times more potent than pure heroin) being increasingly sold as heroin and counterfeit oxycontin, drug checking could curb accidental overdose from drugs users didn’t think they were using. Fentanyl has been reported to be showing up in other illicit drugs across the country, from pez to pot! If drug checking is done through a central community hub which is allowed to handle illegal substances in a lab (similar to Section 56 exemption from the CDSA used by safer consumption sites), it would also make it easier to keep information about bunk drugs flowing through the community.

2) Create a central body to collect data about overdoses.

If drug checking was centralized and shared nationally, then it would be a fantastic opportunity to collect reliable data around local drug trends. Right now, communities are often siloed and rely on people who use coming forward with anecdotal descriptions of pills, powders or capsules that make people sick. This form of data collection makes people put themselves at risk to share this vital information. Often official reports of causes of overdoses are too slow to effectively warn users. A centralized system where drug checking reports and overdose reports could all be input into would give the opportunity to issue specific warnings to the community.

Even when people who use know what they are taking, there can still be risks. That’s why overdose prevention needs to be a community effort.

3) Fund Community Harm Reduction Programs

Harm reduction programs like needle exchanges, crack pipe exchanges, supervised consumption sites, overdose prevention training and free safer use supplies are extremely effective. Research has shown that by providing education on safer use techniques directly to people who use drugs, the information is spread throughout communities.  

4) Implement Good Samaritan Laws

When someone is overdosing they need medical attention immediately. Time is a crucial factor between life and death. Yet in many cases when people are overdosing, the decision to call for help is delayed because of the fear of criminalization. Good Samaritan Laws mean that anyone who calls to report a drug related emergency is granted amnesty from arrest or persecution of minor drug charges, being under the influence or possession of paraphernalia. In Canada these laws are under provincial jurisdiction but you can also work to create Good Samaritan Laws on your campus as well, to make sure no one is afraid to ask for help in case of an overdose. Research has shown that fear of being charged is the number one reason witnesses to overdoses would not call for help.

5) Make Naloxone Free and Easy to Get

Even after emergency services are alerted, users still need access to the tools to deal with an overdose as it’s happening as first responders. Despite the rash of opiate overdoses in Ontario, these types of ODs are actually reversible with a drug called Naloxone. Naloxone blocks opiate receptors in the brain, so a person overdosing can literally have their life saved with an injection of this drug. However getting Naloxone into the hands of people who use drugs continues to be a struggle. Though the drug has no recreational use, it is still very difficult to access for far too many people because it still requires a prescription. It needs to be free and available to anyone who wants access – including community workers, family members and people who use.

Overdoses are tragic but they do not have to be fatal. Good policy makes a difference in everyday life – it can save someone’s life.

What policies did we miss? Let us know in the comments! Find events happening across Canada marking International Overdose Awareness Day.