Edmonton

Battle against fentanyl must include input from drug users, says former drug user

Jordan Westfall has a warning for those on the front lines of the fight against fentanyl: fighting an overdose epidemic without enlisting the help of addicts is a dangerous game.

Wildrose calls on Alberta government to release total number of deaths for 2016

As the opioid crisis continues to spread, advocates are calling for expanded harm-reduction policies. (Lethbridge Police Service)

Jordan Westfall has a warning for those on the front lines of the fight against fentanyl: fighting an overdose epidemic without enlisting the help of addicts is a dangerous game.

Government policies designed to deter use of the powerful opiod can unwittingly harm the people they are designed to protect, Westfall said Monday in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"When the government makes a policy shift without including the people that are using the substance, you tend to see a lot more violence, a lot more overdose deaths," said Westfall, president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, a national association that advocates on behalf of the legal, health and social issues affecting users of illicit drugs in Canada.

'Like selling your soul': Fentanyl dealer tells how she got hooked on deadly drug

The ramifications of even small changes in government policies could be wide-reaching and impossible to predict without insight from users, said Westfall.  

He became hooked on oxycontin while pursuing his university undergrad degree. At the time, Canada had seen a staggering rise in illicit use of the powerful painkiller. When the federal government took the drug off the market in 2012 in an attempt to quell the crisis, the results were catastrophic, Westfall said.

'We are often excluded from the policy process'

"I saw the government decide to take that drug off the market for what appeared to be well-meaning reasons, but without any consultations with the people using the substance, without exit strategies for any of the people who were addicted," said Westfall, who turned to heroin and fentanyl to feed his growing addiction, and nearly became homeless before finally getting clean.

"As a result, I saw a large increase in people overdosing and dying, because they started transitioning to stronger drugs and less safe drugs like street heroin, which can be laced with fentanyl."

Westfall will share his insights on the opioid crisis during a panel discussion Monday at Grant MacEwan University.

Leading health officials, academics and front-line workers will also speak during the public event.

In 2014, 117 Albertans died from fentanyl overdoses. That total more than doubled in 2015, with 257 deaths. In 2016, there were 193 overdose deaths on record by the end of September.

The Wildrose Opposition called on the government Monday to release information about the total number of deaths for last year.

"The fentanyl crisis continues to claim hundreds of lives in our province, and we are not able to fully address the problem when data isn't being released publicly," Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said in a statement. "Numbers of overdose deaths in the last quarter of 2016 could allow public health officials to better target and allocate resources and potentially save lives.

Jean and his caucus urged the province to work with the chief medical officer's office to move to monthly reporting of overdose deaths.

"The NDP government needs to co-operate with our municipal, provincial and federal counterparts in providing information in order to understand and address this issue that is hitting Alberta hard," said Wildrose MLA Tany Yao.

In. B.C., 917 illicit drug overdose deaths were recorded in 2016, a situation so critical that the B.C. government declared a public health emergency in April.

The federal government has acknowledged the threat. In November, Health Minister Jane Philpott, along with many of her provincial and territorial counterparts, jointly committed to respond to "a serious and growing opioid crisis."

'Just keeping people safe is crucial'

For Westfall and his organization, harm reduction is the most effective way to halt a concerning trend. Further criminalizing the drug will only alienate users and force them to look elsewhere for their next high.

His members are lobbying the federal government to immediately approve all proposed safe consumption sites across the country.  

"We have to embrace policy for people who are currently using drugs, who may have no intention of stopping, or don't have access to treatments," he said. "Just keeping people safe is crucially important right now.

"Right now, it's a very burdensome process to open a supervised consumption site. And when people are dying this often, there is no excuse to wait."

For any strategy to succeed, he said, policy makers must start listening to the survivors.

"As far as institutions go, they are too far away from the people with lived experience," Westfall said. "We are often excluded from the policy process. We're not in the room. Someone else is making the decision on our behalf. And when that happens the results can be very negative."

The panel is scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m. Monday in the Kule Theatre in Robbins Health Learning Centre. Admission is free, but attendees are being asked to RSVP.

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Ariel Fournier