B.C. Premier Christy Clark brings opioid concerns to Ottawa

As British Columbia reels under the weight of an opioid crisis, its politicians have come to Ottawa to cajole and perhaps even try to shame federal officials into doing more to help.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark met with federal officials on Thursday, flanked not only by her health minister and addictions experts, but also by two people whose lives have been shaken by fentanyl — including a woman who lost her son to an overdose and another who has wrestled with opioid addiction herself.

If the emotional effect of hearing their experiences isn’t enough, B.C. is also asserting very public, political pressure.

The province’s health minister, Terry Lake, told a private radio station yesterday that there would have been “much greater federal action” if the crisis had hit Ontario with the same force as it hit his province. 

The B.C. Coroner’s Service said Wednesday 622 people have died from drug overdoses in the first 10 months of 2016, an average of about two people every day. Sixty per cent of the overdose deaths are linked to fentanyl. The province declared a public health emergency back in April and has set up a task force to address the problem.

B.C. has been asking the federal government to move faster in streamlining the process to set up more supervised drug injection sites, such as Vancouver’s Insite. The premier has also called for Ottawa to do more to restrict access to pill presses and tableting machines and to pursue stronger penalties against those who import and traffic in fentanyl.

Clark discusses the opioid crisis

B.C. Premier Christy Clark, centre, attends a meeting with federal officials in Ottawa Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016 to discuss B.C.’s opioid crisis with Leslie McBain, left, a mother who lost her only son to overdose, and Mikaela Mamer, an advocate and former addict who lost her boyfriend and best friend to overdoses. On the table are photos of people who have lost their lives to opioid overdoses. (Jennifer Choi/CBC)

The meeting with federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, comes on the eve of a two-day opioid summit in Ottawa, co-hosted by the Canadian and Ontario governments.

Everyone still learning, says Philpott

“This is a huge public health crisis in the country. I’m not sure anyone understands the full scope of it, ” Federal Health Mininster Jane Philpott told CBC News Wednesday.

Asked if authorities have been too slow to respond to the crisis, Philpott said there’s a tremendous amount of work being done by all kinds of organizations.

“But when you’re dealing with a serious public health crisis like this when increasing number of Canadians are dying, then the response can never be fast enough.”

Philpott said she is anxious to bring officials from across the country together at the summit to get a better understanding of what’s behind the problem and now it can be addressed.

The federal health minister has called for better prescribing practices from physicians, more public awareness and reducing unnecessary access to opioids as part of a five-point plan to combat the problem.

​She also pointed to the work her government has already done, including making Naloxone available without a prescription. The medication works to temporarily reverse a potentially fatal opioid overdose. 

“We know for sure that that has saved hundreds of lives.”

Safe injection sites

When it comes to more safe consumption sites, Philpott said Wednesday that her officials have been working “every single day” to remove what she has called “unnecessary barriers.”

“There is action being taken and there will be announcements about that in the coming days and weeks.”

Though she said its not up to her office alone. Setting up a safe drug consumption site also requires work on the municipal and local law enforcement levels, she added.

“So there’s a responsibility for provincial health authorities, for municipal health authorities and communities to make sure they’ve all done their part in it.”

Public Health Officials believe the sites prevent drug overdose deaths and make it easier to help connect addicts with the resources to get them off drugs.

Philpott also said there would be news about regulations for pill presses “in the coming weeks.”

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