‘It’s not working’: Vancouver MP renews call for opioid emergency

The nearly 4,000 people killed by opioids in Canada last year, a third of them in B.C., is proof Ottawa needs to rethink its response, Vancouver-Kingsway MP Don Davies told Metro in a phone interview Sunday.

The federal NDP health critic spoke to Metro three days after an Angus Reid Institute poll found 12 per cent of Canadians had a close friend or relative become opioid-dependent in the last five years.

Davies argued the feds should follow B.C.’s example and declare a federal public health emergency, unlocking funding and allowing overdose prevention sites to proliferate legally as clinics.

“The crisis continues to deepen,” Davies said. “I know the federal government has thrown some significant resources into fighting the epidemic, but clearly it’s not enough as we continue to break year-after-year records for the number of deaths.

“Clearly it’s not working.”

Davies spoke to Metro from the Lift cannabis conference in Vancouver while attending a panel discussion on marijuana as a substitute for synthetic painkillers, featuring overdose prevention activist Sarah Blyth and former B.C. health minister Terry Lake.

The NDP’s leader Jagmeet Singh called for such an emergency declaration last year, but the Liberals have resisted the idea, arguing that it already has the tools and funding in place to tackle the synthetic painkiller crisis.

“Our government is deeply concerned about the opioid crisis in Canada,” Liberal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said in the House of Commons on Nov. 28. “We have taken several emergency measures on this issue, including significant federal investments, a new law, and expedited regulatory action … Formal declarations of an emergency will not provide us with any additional tools or extra measures to provide to the opioid crisis.”

But that last claim, Davies alleged, “is just factually incorrect.”

In fact, the Emergency Act once invoked allows “the establishment of emergency shelters and hospitals” and “emergency payments.”

“Overdose prevention sites — which are not licensed supervised injection sites — are currently operating illegally,” Davies noted. “By making a public emergency declaration, they could designate overdose prevention sites to be emergency clinics across the country.”

But an emergency is also an important symbol the government takes the overdose epidemic seriously, Davies argued.

“If the federal government doesn’t think this is a public health emergency, it sends a signal throughout society that it’s not considered such.

“B.C. has officially declared it an emergency; it would be a strong sign of leadership if the federal government did the same.”

Meanwhile, a new opinion poll by the Angus Reid Institute found that 12 per cent of Canadian adults — or nearly 3.5 million people — said they’re close to somebody who’s become opioid-dependent in the last five years. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the 1,510 adults polled supported supervised injection sites, found the November 14-17 online survey, which had a 2.5 per cent margin of error.

“I have family members and friends who have been affected by addictions,” Davies said, “and every community in the country from here to Cape Breton has been touched by opioid addiction … It’s permeating society.”

Beyond an emergency declaration, he said he wants to see “significant new money targeted at treatment” of addictions in the long-term.

“For a long time, our country has done a very poor job of treating addiction like a health issue, and making sure people have access to timely health care,” he argued. “We need a great expansion of our health care system into the addiction field. You can’t Narcan your way out of this problem.”

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