On Wednesday, the House of Commons is set to call second reading of the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, Liberal backbencher Ron McKinnon's proposal to encourage people to seek emergency medical help when needed without fear of getting in trouble with police.
One of the many supporters of the bill is B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake. Mr. Lake's endorsement isn't surprising – British Columbia has long championed harm-reduction initiatives and this fits well with that agenda. But to have agreement about harm reduction between B.C. and Ottawa is a sign of change.
After decades of battling with the Conservative government in Ottawa over clinical heroin trials, HIV/AIDS treatment and supervised injection sites, Mr. Lake can't hide his relief about the difference in tone since the federal Liberals took office.
The BC Liberal government – representing a coalition of voters who are federal Liberals and Conservatives – has picked a careful path to avoid alienating either wing of its own party.
But when it comes to drug-addiction issues, Mr. Lake says the federal Liberal government is demonstrating a positive change.
"It's quite different. Before we had really an ideological approach that was a criminal justice-based approach rather than a health-oriented, pragmatic approach, which we have now," he said in an interview.
"We have always stood up for harm reduction and evidence-based decision making. … I have been very vocal standing up for those principles, and now we don't have to worry."
The Good Samaritan bill, if passed into law, would promise that anyone who calls emergency services to report a drug overdose won't be charged for drug-possession offences in relation to the incident.
It is based on the notion that all too often, people hesitate to call 911 for help when someone overdoses on illicit drugs for fear of legal repercussions.
"I believe this bill save lives," said Mr. McKinnon, the MP for Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam. He is confident the bill will pass – the Liberal caucus is behind it, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has endorsed it, and he has signed up New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan and Green Leader Elizabeth May to second the motion when it is introduced.
Mr. Lake said B.C.'s emergency health services already will not send police to overdose calls unless the paramedics feel their own safety is endangered. But having a federal law guaranteeing immunity would help reassure people.
"We are in the midst of a public-health crisis, which requires co-ordinated action from multiple levels of government. The federal Good Samaritan Overdose Act would provide reassurance and encourage individuals to call for assistance in the event of an overdose, potentially saving lives."
B.C. and Ottawa are also finding common ground now on a range of health-related initiatives.
The federal Health Minister toured Insite in January, endorsing the supervised-injection site that the Conservatives doggedly sought to close down, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Ottawa is now poised to approve Canada's second supervised-injection site at the Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver.
As well, Dr. Philpott has asked her staff to work on a range of options to address Canada's epidemic of opioid abuse, including setting up a national surveillance system to monitor drug overdoses – another point of synergy with B.C., which is in the process of boosting its overdose monitoring to include non-fatal incidents.
Mr. Lake is not waiting for Ottawa to catch up, however, on another pressing national issue around the fast-growing rate of overdose deaths.
A Globe and Mail investigation recently found that on a per-capita basis, Canada leads the world in the consumption of prescription opioids, but Ottawa and many provinces are not taking adequate steps to stop doctors from indiscriminately prescribing highly addictive opioids to treat chronic pain. Mr. Lake says his office is working with the College of Physicians and Surgeons to ensure "more appropriateness" around prescribing opioids.
B.C. doctors were given new guidelines last September, which the regional health authorities are gradually adopting. Now the province is considering changes to the use of the provincial database PharmaNet to better monitor which doctors are prescribing, and which patients are seeking, prescription opioids.
"We are not waiting around for anything to change federally," Mr. Lake said. "We are working closely with the college to try to get control of the situation."
B.C. has developed successful harm-reduction models that the rest of the country is now eyeing with interest. If B.C. can curb overprescribing of opioids, it will have one more lesson to share with the rest of the country.