Feds urged to publicize law aimed at preventing drug deaths

By: Katie May
Posted: 01/20/2018 3:00 AM

A Good Samaritan law aimed at saving lives during Canada’s opioid crisis isn’t getting enough public attention, proponents say.

Members of all major political parties supported legislation that gives immunity from criminal charges to people who call for help during a drug overdose, but whether the law has encouraged people to call 911 remains unclear. Conservative and NDP health critics say the federal government hasn’t done enough to advertise the Good Samaritans Drug Overdose Act since it came into effect in May 2017.

British Columbia MP Don Davies, who is the NDP health critic, said he’s concerned drug users and people who are meant to benefit from the law don’t know about it.

He said he’s been told the Liberal government spent $2.1 million on advertising the law — too little, he said, given the spike in overdose deaths in several provinces.

“Because we’re in a crisis right now, I think that we should be front-loading the advertising so that we’re doing everything we can to get this information out to people now,” he said, adding he supports the law.

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing that it is having some effect. There’s no hard data yet that I’ve seen to quantify that. I would suspect, though, that it’s having much less impact than it should and that’s because the federal government has only put $2 million into advertising it and, obviously, its effect is only as good as people knowing about it.”

The legislation, which was put forward as a private member’s bill by B.C. Liberal MP Ron McKinnon, means anyone who calls for medical attention or help from law enforcement during an overdose can’t be charged or convicted with simple drug possession or breach charges for breaking court orders. The law applies to anyone experiencing an overdose themselves or anyone calling to help someone else, but it doesn’t extend to more serious charges such as drug trafficking.

Marilyn Gladu, the Conservative health critic, said there hasn’t been enough public education about the law.

“I don’t think there’s a general awareness in the drug-user population that this bill exists,” she said. “I think it’s a great step to make it a law, but I would say to get the awareness of the law is important.

“The government is spending half-a-billion dollars to legalize marijuana. They’ve only spent $30 million on the opioid crisis and clearly there needs to be public education and awareness about this bill in order to save more lives.”

In Manitoba, drug users are being informed about the law and how to prevent overdoses, said Dr. Ginette Poulin, medical director for the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba. She said she talks to her clients about the legal immunity when they seek treatment for opioid addiction.

“The reaction that I see from clients is that they have a little bit of relief when they hear this, but they still have some of that fear. Even though they know, they still worry that they might (be charged),” Poulin said. “Once they start seeing that it’s happening and it’s safe, and people are not (being charged), that will speak volumes.”

The Good Samaritan Act has been invoked in at least four cases in which drug charges were dropped by federal prosecutors in Manitoba — some as recently as September 2017, the province’s chief federal prosecutor told the Free Press.

In Winnipeg, the number of opioid-related deaths has increased five-fold since 2016, according to the most recent statistics from the province. The number of deaths dipped to five in the second quarter of 2016, but increased to 26 by the first quarter of 2017.

The use of naloxone kits — which have been distributed free across Manitoba — increased by 40 per cent in suspected overdose situations. Most of those suspected overdoses were likely caused by the potent painkiller fentanyl or the even more powerful derivative drug carfentanil, according to the report on opioid misuse in Manitoba from April to June 2017.

katie.may@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @thatkatiemay

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