The overdose antidote naloxone could soon be available without a prescription, Health Canada says. 

That change would reassure families and friends of drugs users, said Darlene MacAulay-Boutilier, whose friend Julie Boland died from an overdose in October. 

"I'm so thrilled. This is an amazing step forward," MacAulay-Boutilier said Friday. "Unfortunately it hasn't come fast enough for my friend, but it's going to come — and it's going to save the lives of many other people."

In the coming weeks, drug users in two Nova Scotia communities will be able to receive prescriptions for take-home kits of naloxone, so they can inject the antidote into someone who overdoses on fentanyl, morphine or other opiates.

But families and friends who want to obtain naloxone won't have that chance to save a loved one, MacAulay-Boutilier said. 

"Right now, as we're spinning our wheels, that chance is being taken away from other people."

If it becomes available without a prescription, she said, she'll get it just in case for other people, even though her friend is gone.

"It was hours before she received medical attention," MacAulay-Boutilier said. "She could have still been with us here today."

Darlene MacAulay-Boutilier

MacAulay-Boutilier, left, says she has 'a whole lifetime of memories' of her friend Julie Boland, who died of an overdose. (Submitted by Darlene MacAulay-Boutilier)

Families could help drug users

Harm reduction advocates have wanted the antidote to be more easily available as well, including the staff physician at Halifax's Direction 180, a methadone clinic.

"Families are excited about the possibility that they might have something in their home that might contribute a little bit to being able to help their loved one," David Saunders said.

Overdose deaths don't happen only at parties or on the street, Saunders said.

"Over the last three or four years there have been multiple cases of people who have died at home or close to home with family members," Saunders said.

"Other than calling 911 and trying to access help, [they] have their hands tied. There's nothing they can do."

That could soon change. Health Canada says it's concerned a growing number of people are dying from opioid overdoses. The department is proposing to make naloxone an over-the-counter drug.

The move is a "great step in broadening expansion or access, but it is not a silver bullet," said Cindy MacIsaac, executive director of Direction 180.

She wants Health Canada to approve a nasal spray version of the drug, a step taken by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in November. Naloxone also should be added to the provincial formulary so that its cost is covered by Pharmacare, MacIsaac said.

David Saunders

Dr. David Saunders says easier access to the overdose antidote would allow families to help loved ones with drug addictions. (CBC)

Fentanyl overdose threat

Amy Graves, whose brother died from a drug overdose, says she believes Health Canada's move is in response to an alarming number of fentanyl-related deaths.

"I'm very pleased to see the progress being made towards better access to naloxone," Graves said.

As the founder of Get Prescription Drugs Off the Street, she said the root cause of opioid overdoses — which she said is the over-prescribing of painkillers — needs to be addressed. 

Amy Graves

Amy Graves's brother died from an overdose. She says the root cause of over-prescribing of painkillers needs to be addressed. (CBC)

Fast-track for decision

Health Canada is asking Canadians to give input on the proposed change until March 19.

"If the change in status continues to be supported by the evidence and input received during the consultation, the change will be finalized," a department statement issued Thursday said.

The department is prepared to fast-track the change by waiving the standard six-month implementation period, the statement said.

That can't happen soon enough for Saunders. He said family members, like drug users, will need training on how to administer naloxone and how to spot signs of an overdose.

Saunders said it's logical that naloxone should be widely available, as there is plenty of evidence to show that it's a safe and potentially life-saving drug.