Canada’s opioid crisis: Is Ottawa going to help?

Written by By Nicole Williams, CNN Canada

It’s a well-known and much-discussed statistic in drug addiction: Canadians kill themselves at a rate nearly twice that of Americans, according to the 2016 U.S. National Health Interview Survey.

This is despite Canada’s higher overall population and drug usage statistics. It’s no surprise that the problem, as with all other social problems, is closely tied to personal responsibility, economic inequality and access to treatment.

But unlike the problems facing the United States, there is no overarching “drug czar” who can unify Washington or try to combat the crisis at the individual level — because cannabis and opioids are so intertwined.

Ottawa has a moral responsibility to intervene

An estimated 360 people in Canada die each year from opioid overdoses. It’s not clear whether the problem has improved significantly since 2015, when 1,390 Canadians died of opioid overdoses. Since a handful of drug investigations began last fall, 100 more have died. Last summer, Canadian deaths were at an all-time high.

And the situation is only expected to get worse: The federal Health Canada’s chief drug adviser said on Thursday, “I would be alarmed if we saw it plateau in 2018.”

To fight the problem, Ottawa has called on all levels of government and organized crime to coordinate their efforts.

But even as politicians and the public debate solutions — Ottawa is now finalizing its recommendations for the government — another component is still woefully absent: Ottawa’s moral responsibility to intervene.

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The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto is the biggest facility in Canada treating people addicted to opioids.

“We can’t say definitively that smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol is going to lead to an overdose,” chief executive Dr. Wendy Norman told CNN. “But we know that opioids contribute to the addiction process.”

She said many of the people she sees have been using for more than two decades.

“I find it difficult to make the arguments about smoking and drinking when we’re telling these people that they have no choice,” she said.

Since the centre is Canada’s premier drug facility, its staff have an insider’s perspective on the situation.

On Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a federal task force, which has been meeting for months, would develop a national strategy on opioids by the end of the year. The province of Ontario has hired a new chief medical officer of health, and British Columbia is developing a fentanyl strategy.

Ottawa has long been shy on publicizing these efforts.

Earlier this month, Senator Scott Tannas, a longtime opioid activist, released a report that called on Trudeau to announce a pot tax hike to fund an opioid response. He said it is unacceptable that there is “such a lack of attention and funds” to support a prescription addiction strategy.

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Now, he says, the federal government needs to “lead Canada forward” on the issue.

Norman agreed, adding that the federal government will only get a chance to play that role if it takes “a leadership role.”

While cannabis legalization is in the works, Ottawa hasn’t announced when it plans to tackle the opioid epidemic.

But leaders elsewhere have recognized the need to get ahead of the problem.

A few weeks ago, Ontario’s Liberal provincial government announced it will spend C$60 million ($47 million) over five years to treat opioid addiction, at a time when $400 million has been cut from its drug treatment program.

Manitoba announced in February it would double the province’s addiction treatment capacity and create new addiction treatment programs. But experts are questioning why Ottawa hasn’t said anything about it.

And in June, British Columbia announced it would provide funding to opioid overdose prevention sites across the province in an effort to address the growing deaths.

“If we are going to address this challenge, we need to come together on a national level,” Norman said.

“We really hope and expect,” she said, “that the federal government will step up and do what they are, which is to put some much-needed resources into addiction treatment and recovery.”

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