Provincial health officials are discussing a variety of interventions that could be deployed in response to a recent surge in overdoses linked to the synthetic opioid fentanyl. However, several of those ideas remain blocked by legal or bureaucratic challenges.
During an August 11 conference call, Jane Buxton, harm-reduction lead for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said one suggestion is to open drug “checking” sites where people could bring illicit narcotics to be analyzed without fear of police persecution.
“The possibility of testing street drugs, that is something that would be of value,” Buxton said. “Currently, there is no way to do that in the legal framework that we have and there is no test available.” (A test for fentanyl does exist but it requires specialized equipment and a trained technician.)
On August 5, the Straight reported that the Vancouver Police Department would not oppose such drug-testing.
Joining Buxton on the call was deputy provincial health officer Bonnie Henry. She said she would like naloxone, a drug used to counter opioid overdoses, made available without a prescription in B.C. That decision has to be made by Health Canada, she noted, and though it is being discussed, it is unlikely to come soon.
Although ambulances in B.C. are equipped with naloxone kits, police and RCMP officers still respond to calls without them, Henry added. In a subsequent telephone interview, she explained that there is concern about officers carrying needles and the risks those can pose. In the United States, some police departments equip their officers with an intranasal form of naloxone, but that has not been approved in Canada.
Buxton said she would also like to see an expansion of harm-reduction services in B.C. But again, she noted, there are barriers such as opposition from the federal Conservative government.
Buxton maintained the province is advancing these ideas, especially in the case of naloxone. But she conceded that it is “frustrating”.
According to an August 11 warning issued by the B.C. Coroners’ Service, so far in 2015 it has detected fentanyl in 66 overdose deaths. That’s up from 13 in 2012 and on track to surpass the 90 seen in 2013.