"GOOD SAMARATIN LAW" IS CANADA'S NEWEST WEAPON AGAINST FATAL OVERDOSES

Photo by Hailey McAdams

Photo by Hailey McAdams

HAILEY MCADAMS

McKayla was devastated when she found out her close friend had died suddenly from a fentanyl-related overdose.   

Now three years clean from her own opioid addiction, she is optimistic about the “Good Samaritan Bill” recently cleared by the House of Commons. The bill protects those who call 911 to report a drug overdose from being charged with possession of drugs.

McKayla, 19, believes the progressive new bill has the potential to save thousands of lives. She remembers being “harassed” numerous times by police who responded to her 911 calls.    

A NATION-WIDE CRISIS

Tracey Stark is the facilitator for Resiliency4Recovery, an addiction support group that both McKayla and her late friend attended.

Stark believes the surge in accidental overdoses is yet another reason why the Canadian government needs to treat the fentanyl crisis “as a health issue” rather than a crime issue.  

As the toll for fentanyl-related deaths continues to climb to tragic heights, the bill represents the growing need for harm-reductive strategies to combat addiction. 

The deadly drug was originally intended as a pain reliever for cancer patients and is 100 times more powerful than morphine. It has become popular with drug dealers across the globe, who cut it as filler into other substances such as cocaine and ecstasy and sell it to unassuming buyers.

Between 2015 and 2016, there has been an estimated 40 per cent jump in the number of street drugs that contain fentanyl in Ontario.

“Fentanyl doesn’t discriminate…It’s not just the people that use every day,” Stark said, “It’s the ‘weekend warriors’ that are at risk now, too.”

In April 2015, British Colombia Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared the province’s staggering number of opioid-related deaths to be a “public health emergency.”

“We are in fact dealing with a crisis,” said Natasha Cheong, a front-line worker for the city of Vancouver’s community services department. 

While Alberta and British Columbia remain the hardest-hit provinces, with 418 fatal overdoses linked to fentanyl in 2015 alone, the passing of Bill C-224, or “The Good Samaritan Bill,” proves that the crisis is finally being recognized as a national issue.

CATCHING UP TO THE DAMAGE

Although things appear to be picking up, addiction researchers are frustrated with the slow pace of the government’s response to the crisis so far.

The most recent statistics available on fatal opioid overdoses in Ontario are from 2014 and do not accurately represent the comprehensive damage fentanyl has done to the province in the last two years.   

Stark believes a federal policy addressing the issue would be a “game-changer” for organizations like hers that not only work towards recovery and long-term treatment, but also work to reduce the stigma that prevents many drug users from seeking help.

Ideally, Stark would like to see “more of a menu” of treatment options, made available through better government funding.

Addiction support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous work for some parts of the population, but not everyone.

Young people especially, Stark explained, are intimidated by adult programs and need recovery options tailored to their own, age-related experiences.

For many young people, that means providing more 24-hour crisis services instead of the traditional 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM schedule that some cities and smaller towns still rely on.

A PROGRESSIVE NEW PATH

Unlike abstinence-rooted policies that criminalize drug users, harm reduction strategies work to minimize the health risks of substance abuse and acknowledges treatment as a life-long process with ups and downs.

Available harm-reduction strategies for fentanyl use currently include:

·      Naloxone, or Narcan, kits contain a powerful antidote for opioid overdoses that restores breathing and consciousness within three to five minutes.

·      Supervised Safe Injection sites, currently only available in Vancouver.

·      Methadone Clinics, where people addicted to opioid-based drugs can access a replacement drug during treatment or withdrawal.

·      Test Kits, available online and in some pharmacies, use a strip to test whether a drug has been contaminated with fentanyl.

Community advocates like Stark view harm-reduction methods as beneficial for substance abuse in the long run.

“If somebody was using opiates, and then stopped using opiates but was still smoking marijuana,” she explains, “we would see that as being in recovery, because they have reduced the risk.”

Front-line workers like Cheong also embrace these strategies when paired with other services such as housing and mental health support.

Of her typical work day on Vancouver’s downtown East Side, Cheong said, “I walk around with Naloxone – not the prettiest part of the job.”

FOCUSING ON WHAT MATTERS

An accidental overdose, McKayla stressed, is not a reflection of a person’s character. Rather, the way it is handled is “a testament to law enforcement” and our society’s perception of people with substance abuse issues as criminals.

“At least now, when someone is overdosing, when someone’s life is at risk,” she said, “that is the only factor that matters.”