Advocates for drug users gathered on Parliament Hill Tuesday afternoon to demand concrete action from the federal government in response to the fentanyl overdose crisis that's plaguing communities across the country.

The National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis was organized by the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, with rallies in eight Canadian cities including Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. 

"If you can't live, you can't recover. You can't do anything in life. The first thing that we have to do is keep people alive," said Rick Sproule with the Drug Users Advocacy League in Ottawa. 

Sproule, who helped organize the event, said he would like to see immediate government action to combat fatal overdoses.

"The federal government is talking about new injection sites [and] that would help very much with this overdose crisis. But they haven't done anything yet. They can talk all they want, but we're dying on a daily basis."

Increasing overdose deaths

According to Ottawa Public Health, there were approximately 50 overdose deaths in the capital in 2015. Twenty-nine were due to opioids, and 14 of those involved fentanyl.

The Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario says it doesn't have the exact number of fentanyl overdose deaths in the province in 2016, but in Alberta, there were 343 deaths connected to the powerful opioid. Meanwhile, in B.C., 914 people died of overdoses last year, with fentanyl appearing to be largely responsible for the high number. 

Rick Sproule

Rick Sproule, with the Drug Users Advocacy League, says Canada needs more supervised injection sites to keep drug users safe in the wake of the fentanyl crisis. (CBC)

Sproule, who is a former drug user and a recovering alcoholic, believes safe injection sites could help save lives. "They allow drug users to have a life," he said. "We think it's very callous on [the government's]

part to just drag their feet and not open up these sites instantly."

In the meantime, Sproule is thankful that people on the front lines are able to carry and administer naloxone, the drug that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and is available, for free, at some pharmacies in Ottawa.

Along with opening up more safe injection sites, advocates are also calling for the legalization and regulation of all drugs as well as more support and therapy for drug users.

Educating youth and recreational users

Young people also need to be educated about the risks associated with the dangerous drugs — and the doses — they're taking, according to Kelly F., a drug user and member of the Ottawa Network of Peers Acting for Harm Reduction.

Kelly F.

Kelly F. says legalizing and federally regulating all drugs will decrease the number of fatal overdoses in Canada. (CBC)

"Drug trends are changing and they change with every new generation," he said. "Kids are using different drugs. Now there's more and more designer drugs, lab-made drugs coming out. Carfentanil, fentanyl, stuff like this. It's so inexpensive to manufacture."

Sproule also believes counterfeit drugs are affecting youth overdose rates. "With the fentanyl crisis right now, you don't know how strong the stuff is that you're taking. You don't know if you're going to live or die with that hit that you're taking," he said.

"Percocet would be used by younger people...but the recreational users will use them thinking that they're prescription and that's where the trouble is because they are not prescription, they're counterfeit and there's no way for them to control the amount of fentanyl going into each tablet."