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Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 13, 2019.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

One person died every two hours of an opioid-related overdose in Canada last year, and the death toll rose for the third year in a row, driven largely by fentanyl.

A report released by the Public Health Agency of Canada on Thursday shows that in 2018, 4,460 people died of an opioid-related overdose, or about 12 each day. The rates are highest in British Columbia and Alberta, followed by Ontario. More than 11,500 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Canada from January, 2016, to December, 2018.

The scale of overdose deaths is so massive it’s changing the overall life expectancy of Canadians. From 2016 to 2017, life expectancy for men and women in Canada did not increase, the first time that had happened in more than 40 years. Statistics Canada, which released the findings last month, attributed the stagnation to the opioid crisis. Life expectancy in B.C. and Alberta actually dropped over that period, which affected the national rate.

The vast majority of overdose deaths were accidental and most involved fentanyl, a highly potent opioid that is often mixed into other street drugs, unbeknownst to the user.

Public-health experts have been calling on governments to take bold action to get the crisis under control. Earlier this week, the House of Commons health committee recommended the federal government consider a decriminalization strategy similar to what’s been adopted in Portugal, where people using drugs are connected to treatment and other health resources instead of jailed. Portugal has seen a major reduction in overdoses, transmission of drug-related infectious diseases and a decrease in other harms since it adopted the policy in the early 2000s.

In an interview, federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said the federal government is not going to pursue decriminalization and said it is focusing instead on efforts to ensure there is a clean supply of drugs for people who use them.

In April, B.C.'s provincial health officer Bonnie Henry called on the province to decriminalize the use of illegal drugs for personal use. This would allow officials to focus efforts on harm reduction and connecting people who use drugs to resources that could help them. This is a better, safer alternative to focusing on the criminal aspect of drug use, which stigmatizes the people who use drugs and encourages them to use drugs alone, which increases the risk of death, Dr. Henry said in her report.

“We know that it’s young men who are dying alone at home,” Dr. Henry said in an interview Thursday. “They’re dying alone at home because of the shame and stigma and fear associated with being called a criminal for being dependent on an illegal … drug.”

Dr. Henry said that while the overdose numbers continue to rise, they likely would have been much higher without all of the public-health efforts that have been introduced. She highlighted the fact that people who use drugs continue to be marginalized.

In other provinces, health and harm-reduction experts are calling on governments to expand access to supervised drug-use sites to help reduce the death toll. Last year, Ontario’s government announced it would cap the total number of supervised drug-use sites at 21. So far, 15 have been approved and several sites have had their applications rejected.

Ms. Petitpas Taylor criticized the Ontario government’s actions with regard to supervised drug-use sites.

“I’m disappointed to see that they’re not moving forward and that they’ve cut funding in some of these areas as well,” she said. “We recognize that harm-reduction services and these types of models work.”

Meanwhile, Alberta’s new United Conservative party government announced earlier this month it is freezing funding for any new sites until it can conduct a review.

The new national death figures show that, as in previous years, men made up the majority of opioid-related overdose deaths. Young and middle-aged men accounted for most.

Ms. Petitpas Taylor said the rising numbers are a concern, but that without the government’s efforts to expand access to supervised drug-use sites and other harm-reduction measures across the country, the figures could be even higher. She said the opioid crisis must be treated as a public-health issue.

“This isn’t a moral failure,” Ms. Petitpas Taylor said in an interview. “These are people that are suffering from addictions and substance misuse issues. We have to make sure that we treat them with compassion.”

With reports from Kelly Grant

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