MPP Column: Addressing the opioid crisis demands compassion, evidence-based policy

Submitted by Joel Harden, MPP Ottawa Centre

The holiday season is a time of compassion, when we turn our attention to the most marginalized in our community and think about how we can support them. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about people who are addicted to drugs and the impact that the opioid crisis is having on them and their loved ones.

I recently had an opportunity to attend a community meeting regarding the supervised injection site at the Somerset West Community Health Centre, which opened in the spring of 2018. The site is located in an area that has the second highest rate of drug overdoses in the city.

The impact of the opioid crisis on Ottawa has been devastating, with 94 deaths being recorded in our health region this year alone, compared to 49 in 2016.

When our province has faced other public health crises, including the listeriosis outbreak of 2008 resulting in tainted meat, immediate action was taken. There is no excuse for failing to act with similar urgency to save the lives of people who are being poisoned by a toxic drug supply.

At Queen’s Park, we’re debating a Bill that would allow the government to take legal action against opioid manufacturers in order to recover healthcare related costs due to opioid-related injury or death. I support the Bill, but it does nothing to address the issue of unsafe drug supply. It’s also time for us to seriously consider the idea of “safe supply” as a means to stop people dying from tainted drugs.

I was struck by the consensus articulated at the community meeting by public health officials, police officials and city councillors that the key issue is the toxic illicit drug supply that is poisoning users. A serious and effective response to the opioid crisis needs to reckon with this reality.

We could start by following the lead of British Columbia, where a pilot project supplying safe opioid pills to a group of 50 users has been implemented. London, Ontario, has a similar program called “Emergency Safer Supply” where doctors prescribe opioids to users who might otherwise buy deadly, toxic drugs on the black market.

Let’s remember that people who use drugs are our neighbours, our friends, our loved ones – they are not an alien species. We need a humane drug policy that treats addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal offence. I’ll continue speaking up on this issue at the legislature, and doing whatever I can to support community health workers and grassroots advocates who are working to save lives every day.

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