Up to two-thirds of Canadian bystanders who have recently administered the antidote for an opioid overdose to someone did not call 911 after that crucial moment, with the No. 1 reason being a fear getting arrested for drug offences, a new report says.
The data, collected by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse from surveys of people who are not medical professionals who use take-home naloxone antidotes, show that 44 per cent of respondents said they were too scared of getting police involved to call 911 during an overdose.
The research shows this may be because they do not want to be prosecuted for possessing illicit drugs themselves, are in breach of parole or probation conditions, have children that could be taken from them or fear being accused of complicity in the overdose, according to a bulletin the centre released on Monday in partnership with the Canadian Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use.
"It's a bit of what we suspected: Opioid use is a stigmatized behaviour and, in many cases, it's an illegal behaviour," said Matthew Young, a senior research and policy analyst at the centre.
The next most-common reason for not calling 911 was a sense, in 37 per cent of respondents, that the situation was under control or that the person would recover on their own, according to the study, which was based on 323 interviews over the past three years in five provinces.
The bulletin aims to create awareness among front-line workers, law-enforcement officers and politicians about one of the problems contributing to the epidemic of opioid overdoses that killed hundreds of people across Canada last year.
"The probability of surviving a drug-related poisoning [overdose] depends in part on the speed with which the person receives appropriate care or an emergency intervention," the bulletin states.
It said Canada could fight this reluctance to call 911 by enacting laws that give immunity from prosecution to anyone who phones for help during illicit drug overdoses. As of June this past year, 37 U.S. states had such legislation, the bulletin notes.
One such law, tabled by Liberal Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam MP Ron McKinnon, has undergone second reading in Parliament. The Senate, where it has wide support, is expected vote on it in the coming weeks. But it is unclear whether the bill would offer broad enough immunity, such as protecting callers from charges including possession of drug paraphernalia related to their own drug use, the bulletin said.
It also recommended that police forces re-evaluate how they respond to drug overdoses. In 2006, the Vancouver Police Department amended its policy to avoid attending these calls unless explicitly asked by paramedics, the bulletin noted.
Health-care workers should stress the importance of calling 911 after overdoses when they give out the take-home antidote kits, the bulletin recommended.
Last month, mayors of Canada's largest cities and federal cabinet ministers pledged to forge a united front in an effort to thwart the spiralling drug crisis as more dangerous drugs hit the streets.
Carfentanil, a powerful animal tranquillizer responsible for a spate of overdose deaths in Alberta and the United States, was found in 40 samples of illegal drugs in 2016, new figures show.
The Globe and Mail has reported that the number of illegal-drug samples containing fentanyl doubled every year in Canada between 2012 – when dealers first began smuggling a black-market version of the prescription painkiller into the country from China – and 2016.
The federal government has tabled legislation that would make it easier for communities to open safe-injection sites and that would ban the importation of pill-press machines used to manufacture bootleg fentanyl.
In British Columbia, a record 922 people died last year of opioid overdoses. Alberta had 343 deaths linked to fentanyl and its analogues last year, including 22 from carfentanil, which can be fatal in quantities as small as a grain of salt and has no known safe application for human use.