Health Canada Responds​​​​​​​ to the National Opioid Crisis

Ottawa Life Magazine contacted Health Canada to learn more about their response to the opioid crisis. Thierry Bélair, the Press Secretary to the The Honourable Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Minister of Health, responded to our questions.

What do you think the federal government has learned from British Columbia (and Vancouver's) response to the opioid crisis?

Health Canada: Our government is committed to working with partners, including the provinces, territories and municipalities, across Canada to address the opioid crisis. This includes sharing best practices and lessons learned through the Federal-Provincial-Territorial (FPT) Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses (SAC). Membership in this Committee includes federal, provincial and territorial Chief Medical Officers of Health, and the Committee is co-chaired by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer.

Because British Columbia was the first province to witness the full scale of this crisis, a number of the measures taken in that province have been shared through FPT collaboration and are being implemented nation-wide. Some of the important tactics piloted by British Columbia include models for supervised consumption sites, naloxone distribution and treatment guidelines. We will continue to support the implementation of best practices and innovative approaches to respond to the crisis.

Part of the federal government's recent initiatives regarding the opioid crisis includes more access to opioid replacement programs, such as hydromorphone. With the legalization of recreational marijuana on the horizon, is it likely that cannabis could become a player in these types of programs? Is it already?

Health Canada: While cannabis is not an approved therapeutic substance in Canada, health care practitioners may authorize its use for the relief of a number of symptoms associated with a variety of disorders that may not have responded to conventional medical treatments.

The evidence on cannabis is evolving. Health care practitioners are authorizing cannabis as a treatment for a wide range of symptoms associated with medical conditions, including nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy, loss of appetite and weight loss associated with HIV-AIDS, and pain and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis and arthritis. Our government recognizes the need to pursue different options to address the opioid crisis and better serve Canadians and will continue to follow the evolving research on novel approaches.

What role do safe injection sites play in the mitigation of the opioid crisis, and does the minister foresee significantly increased support for safe injection sites in 2018?

Health Canada: Supervised con-sumption sites are an important harm reduction measure that provide controlled settings where individuals can bring their own illegal drugs to use under the supervision of trained professionals. They are intended to prevent overdose deaths and the spread of blood-borne diseases, while providing access to health and social services, including treatment. International and Canadian evidence shows that, when properly established and maintained, supervised consumption sites save lives without increasing drug use or crime in the surrounding area.

This is why our government streamlined the application process for communities that want and need supervised consumption sites while ensuring that public health and safety requirements are met. To date, the federal government has approved more than 25 supervised consumption sites across Canada. In addition, Health Canada has also approved applications that include providing oral and intranasal consumption activities and drug checking services in addition to injection services. Health Canada has developed a process to issue class exemptions for overdose prevention sites on a province-by-province basis and for a three-month period, with the possibility for renewal. Provinces and territories would be responsible for the oversight of the overdose prevention sites. Health Canada remains committed to working directly with applicants to facilitate the application process and are reviewing all applications to operate supervised consumption sites as quickly as possible.

As part of the November announcement, the government committed to “identify and reduce federal barriers to treatment.” What kind of treatment does this statement include, and what are some of the barriers?

Health Canada: In general, provinces and territories are largely responsible for the delivery of health care services, including treatment. However, the federal government is also taking steps to remove barriers at the federal level for potential treatment options. In September 2016, Health Canada once again allowed applications through the Special Access Programme for the sale of diacetylmorphine (medical-grade heroin) for emergency treatment. In June 2017, our government made regulatory changes to allow the import of certain listed medications not yet authorized in Canada for urgent public health needs. Our government continues to review its policies and regulations to identify potential barriers to accessing treatment and to find ways to reduce them so that the provinces and territories can access as many forms of treatment as possible, should they want them.

What is the minister's response to health critic Don Davies’ call for enactment of the Emergency Act?

Health Canada: Opioid-related overdoses have claimed the lives of thousands of Canadians, devastating families and communities throughout the country. Our government and the provinces and territories continue to work collaboratively and to take action to prevent overdose deaths.

We have responded to the opioid crisis by:

  • Making significant new federal investments, including $100 million over five years to support the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy and urgent funding to British Columbia and Alberta. 
  • mplementing new legislation and fast-tracking regulatory action, including passing Bill C-37, reducing regulatory barriers to treatment and supporting the passing of the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act.
  • Taking steps to reduce harms, by making it easier to get life-saving naloxone, by approving more than 25 new supervised consumption sites, and by raising awareness of how to spot overdoses, and what to do to help someone who might be experiencing an opioid overdose.
  • Establishing the FPT Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses, which is using its public health lens to focus on improving surveillance, supporting harm reduction and addressing treatment options.

Is there anything else you would like to add about the federal government's role in mitigating the opioid crisis in Canada?

Health Canada: Our Government is committed to addressing this crisis. That commitment can be seen in the significant actions we have taken, and continue to take.

We have responded through:

  • Significant new federal investments;
  • Enacting new legislation; and
  • Fast-tracking regulatory action.

We have focused our attention on three key areas:

  • We are working with the provinces and territories to increase access to treatment;
  • We are supporting innovative approaches to address this crisis; and
  • We are taking steps to address stigma related to opioid use.

Above all, we will continue to work with stakeholders to bring forward solutions to save lives and turn the tide on this national health crisis