Ottawa will let provinces and territories open temporary sites for drug-overdose prevention while their applications for permanent facilities are processed, a measure officials hope will curb the country's deadly substance-abuse crisis, the federal Health Minister said.
Ginette Petitpas Taylor also said in a speech in Calgary on Wednesday that existing sites for supervised drug consumption, which provide more services than overdose-prevention sites, will be permitted to allow users to check their illicit drugs for the presence of the opioid fentanyl. As well, the federal government wants to reduce regulatory barriers that limit access to prescription-grade heroin for people in drug-treatment programs, Ms. Petitpas Taylor said. These initiatives are already under way in B.C.
About 3,000 people could die of opioid overdoses in 2017.
The federal government has earmarked $100-million over five years to address the crisis and on Wednesday said it is using $30-million of that for a harm-reduction fund. It will be largely directed toward education projects such as programs aimed at reducing the spread of infectious diseases, including HIV, through sharing needles and ending the stigma of substance abuse.
The temporary facilities, new drug-testing rules and regulations on prescription-grade heroin are not part of the $30-million fund.
"The current epidemic of opioid overdoses is a public-health crisis unlike any other we have dealt with in recent years," Ms. Petitpas Taylor said. "This situation certainly keeps me up at night."
The minister reiterated that her government will not decriminalize petty drug use and possession, despite calls by the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
"It is not an issue that we're looking at," she told reporters after her speech. "We are exploring other avenues right now."
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said he was pleased the federal government will allow more flexibility for provinces to provide harm reduction. Brandy Payne, Alberta's associate minister of health, likewise said she welcomed more provincial autonomy.
Hakique Virani, a public health and addiction medicine specialist at the University of Alberta, said he was encouraged by Wednesday's announcement. He said he hopes Alberta would open overdose-prevention sites, particularly in rural and suburban communities that are underserved. Ms. Petitpas Taylor also said the federal government would support a pilot project to provide hydromorphone – an injectable drug to treat opioid dependency – at supervised-consumption sites. Dr. Virani said this will have particular relevance in Alberta.
He expressed frustration at the government's continued refusal to consider drug decriminalization.
"I think there are many experts that share that frustration," Dr. Virani said. "You're interested in seeing a culture of stigma change, but the one thing that you can do to change the approach to personal substance use for particular substances, you're unwilling to. I just don't understand."
Several of the steps announced on Wednesday have been running in B.C. for some time.
B.C. opened more than 20 overdose-prevention sites without federal approval last December – the province's worst month on record for overdoses. Eighteen remain, while a few have become federally sanctioned supervised-consumption sites.
Insite, Vancouver's first public supervised-consumption site, has been running a pilot project to check illicit drugs for fentanyl since July, 2016. Last week, B.C's Health Minister Judy Darcy announced it would expand to all of the province's supervised-consumption and overdose-prevention sites.
Supervised treatment with hydromorphone, which is similar to heroin, was studied in B.C. from 2011 to 2015. Since then, the therapy has been available to a small group of people in Vancouver, and the province has released guidelines to encourage other health authorities to expand the injectable opioid treatment.
Canada has about 25 federally approved supervised-consumption sites. Suzy McDonald, the federal assistant deputy minister of the opioid response team, said temporary emergency facilities will be permitted at the request of provincial and territorial health officials.