B.C. to create task force to address opioid crisis

The B.C. government is creating a task force — and pushing Ottawa for more help — to address the opioid crisis that has killed more than 370 people in the province in the first part of 2016.

'Every single one of those lives lost is preventable,' premier says

Synthetic fentanyl can be in either powder form or packaged as OxyContin pills. (The Canadian Press)

The B.C. government is creating a task force — and pushing Ottawa for more help — to address the opioid crisis that has killed more than 370 people in the province in the first part of 2016.

"This is an urgent health emergency and we need to deal with it right away," Clark told reporters at a news conference at St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver.

The task force will be headed by provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall and Clayton Pecknold, director of police services. It will also include representatives from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the ministries of health and public safety.

In addition to the task force the province plans to push for more help from federal enforcement officials to help crack down on fentanyl overdoses.

Clark wants the federal government to restrict access to devices such as pill presses and tableting machines and to pursue stronger penalties against those who import and traffic in fentanyl.

Clark also wants Ottawa to ask the Canada Border Services Agency to search small packages for fentanyl to stop the drug coming into the country.

In the past, federal officials have said they don't have the resources to check every small package entering the country.

Urges CBSA to search packages

Clark said they do have the resources, "so they should," conduct searches.

"It's a health emergency," she said. "It's an effort worth doing."

Health Minister Terry Lake agreed, saying resources would be marshalled "if this was SARS or Ebola."

Clark said health officials are alarmed at B.C.'s surging overdose rate, noting there was a 70 per cent increase in overdose deaths from January to June of this year.

Recent statistics from the coroner's service in B.C. show there were 371 deaths in the first six months of this year.

The service says the proportion of deaths where fentanyl was detected in toxicology tests jumped to about 60 per cent and that the drug was either used alone or in combination with other drugs.

"Every single one of these deaths is preventable," Clark said.

The government says the new task force will provide expert leadership and advice to the province on how to prevent and respond to overdoses.

British Columbia declared a public health emergency in April when overdose deaths surged to an alarming rate in the first few months of this year.

Feds applaud task force

The federal Health Ministry supported the province's initiative on the task force.

"Our government applauds B.C.'s work in this area and its swift response to what has become a public health crisis," said the ministry in a written statement.

"We want to assure the province we will work with them as they advance their efforts to combat this crisis." 

The ministry emphasized Health Canada's new Action Plan on Opioid Abuse, which includes awareness campaigns about the risks of opioids, prescription monitoring programs and reducing access to opioids.

It also said it made the overdose antidote naloxone more widely available earlier this year, as well as an interim order allowing naloxone nasal spray to be sold in Canada.

"There is no single solution to this devastating problem," said the ministry. "Looking forward, we know that much work still needs to be done."

With a report from Canadian Press