Passing laws one step in war on opioid overdoses

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – There was an urgent need to pass Bill C-37, and now there’s an urgent need to ensure its implementation is not bound up in bureaucratic red tape.
May 31, 2017.   By SANDRA KA HON CHU

With the recent passage into law of Bill C-37, the government of Canada has taken a huge step forward in addressing the opioid crisis, acting on a stated commitment to harm reduction as a key pillar of Canada’s drug policy.

The new law will make it easier to open and operate safer consumption services in Canada without risk of criminal prosecution under Canada’s drug laws. Bill C-37 streamlines the application and renewal process and adds new requirements for transparency, including requiring written reasons if the minister denies an application — facilitating a challenge to that decision in court if need be.

But curbing the rapidly rising death toll from the ongoing opioid overdose crisis devastating communities across the country remains a paramount concern. Changing the text of the statute must be matched by immediate action: it is now up to the provinces and territories to implement this law without delay. Every day that passes means the body count rises, and more lives needlessly lost.

Provincial and territorial governments need to act now on some important fronts. First, they must ensure that funding is immediately available for safer consumption services and increase access to treatment for opioid use disorder. Without committed funding to actually administer these life-saving services, the new law will be nothing more than words on paper and people who use drugs in Canada will continue to die.

The numbers don’t lie: 412 people died in Ontario in the first six months of 2016, up 11 per cent from 2015, while in B.C., recent statistics indicate that overdose deaths increased by 66 per cent from early 2016 to early 2017. The opioid crisis has killed at least 2,300 people across the country just last year — more people have died from opioid overdose than any infectious epidemic in Canada.

There was an urgent need to pass Bill C-37, and now there’s an urgent need to ensure its implementation is not bound up in bureaucratic red tape.

At the same time, provincial and territorial health authorities must not impose, in the context of funding such services, unduly burdensome operational requirements that effectively delay their scaleup. As the ongoing opioid crisis illustrates, such bureaucratic delays are deadly.

In addition to safer consumption services, there is a pressing need to expand access to treatment options for people with problematic substance use, including medication-assisted treatment, such as the prescription of methadone, buprenorphine, hydromorphone and diacetylmorphine for those with opioid dependence.

These evidence-based measures have long been in use in other countries and shown through Canadian research studies to be effective. If Canada is truly concerned about saving lives, we must also adopt treatment options for people who are in dire need.

Ultimately, though, we need to put an end to the underlying criminalization of people who use drugs. Drug use and dependence are still treated as criminal law concerns, rather than as health issues, and research has shown that the criminalization of drug use has a negative effect on HIV prevention and treatment.

Repressive policing of people who use drugs poses barriers to essential health services, such as needle and syringe programs, for example, and forces people who use drugs to share drug equipment or dispose of it unsafely. Incarcerating people who use drugs also has severe implications for their health, given much higher rates of HIV and hepatitis C behind bars, where essential harm reduction measures such as prison-based needle and syringe programs are still missing.

Drug policy is at a critical juncture in Canada, and provincial and territorial governments now have the law on their side to scale up safer consumption services and save lives. We also have an opportunity to rethink our approach to drugs, with renewed momentum and support for the decriminalization of the possession of drugs for personal use, and toward a smart, regulatory approach for all drugs.

If this critical opportunity is not seized, we will continue to see the damage done by HIV and hepatitis C, overdose, inadequate health services, over-policing and over-incarceration. And all we’ll be left with will be some meaningless words on paper.

Janet Butler-McPhee is director of communications and advocacy and Sandra Ka Hon Chuis director of research and advocacy for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2017/05/31/passing-laws-one-step-in-war-on-opioid-overdoses.html

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