Mayors call for national strategy to tackle opioid crisis

Mayors of the largest cities across Canada have released recommendations to tackle the opioid crisis and they're asking the federal government to act immediately.

Police suspect 31 people have died from drug overdoses in Waterloo region so far this year

A government investment of $800k has resulted in almost immediate treatment for many addicts. (CBC)

Mayors across Canada, including Kitchener's Berry Vrbanovic, are asking for a national strategy to tackle Canada's growing opioid crisis and they're calling on the federal government to start now.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities' Big City Mayors' Caucus released recommendations Thursday asking for the federal government to immediately create goals and timelines to achieve those goals in order to reduce opioid overdoses and deaths. 

"This is a public health crisis and ... we need to work collaboratively to tackle it, so we came up with a series of recommendations," said Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic in an interview with CBC K-W's Craig Norris on The Morning Edition on Friday. Vrbanovic is one of 13 mayors on the opioid task force, headed up by Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

​The recommendations include tracking numbers of overdoses and deaths, expanding treatment options like opioid substitution therapy, and reducing delays to getting treatment, as well as increasing access to supportive housing.

Other recommendations include eliminating barriers for people seeking help during an overdose, expanding drug testing technologies for fentanyl and opioids.

On Wednesday, the Ontario government released numbers up to July 1, 2016, showing rates of overdoses and overdose deaths in the province, sortable by local health networks. Overall, the number of opioid deaths in the first half of 2016 jumped 11 percent over 2015.

On Thursday, Michael Parkinson with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council told CBC News early data he had indicated that overdose deaths in the region had again increased in the first half of 2017.

Police suspect opioids are tied to 31 deaths so far, including three in May alone. 

Naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

What it means for Waterloo Region

"In our area, we really need to look at (it) on a regional level, because public health is at the region, policing is at the region, fire is at the municipal level and housing sort of has a bunch of layers and responsibility," Vrbanovic said.

He said that education continues to remain important, especially when targeted at young people.

"We need to develop programs for young people so they understand the impacts if they borrow or grab a couple of painkillers from mom or dad that are legitimately prescribed, we need to start looking at alternative ways of managing pain," he said. 

"Then we need to get to things like housing. We know one of the best ways of dealing with people who are dealing with substance abuse issues is having supportive housing in place," he said.

"We know in the last federal budget there was a significant investment made in housing, and so, we're looking to see a portion of that money getting implemented very quickly so that we can get the right supports in place quickly to start addressing this." 

Vrbanovic added, "It's not going to happen overnight, but we need to turn those numbers around."

What will it cost?

Vrbanovic said it's hard to predict right now how much it will cost to tackle the crisis. As a start, the federal government committed $116 million to address the opioid crisis in the last budget.

"I believe actually many of the financial resources are there already, it may require re-allocation, it may mean shifting some from one order of government to another in order to support these initiatives, but as I said, $11.2 billion was allocated to housing programs, let's get some going as quickly as possible on the supportive housing end of things," he said.

"Not one of these recommendations is going to solve the problem on its own, we need all of them together really help," he said.

The FCM will issue a progress report in September on the opioid crisis and whether there has been progress on any of the recommendations.

Meanwhile, Ontario mayors are meeting with the provincial health minister in mid-June to talk about provincial strategy.

"There seems to be a real recognition at all levels that there's no time to waste and we need to treat this in the same way as we've treated some other public health emergencies in the past," Vrbanovic said.