How pharmacists are becoming the first line of defence against opioid overdoses

Kits containing naloxone - a drug that reverses opioid overdose effects - are supposed to be available for free over the counter, but not all pharmacies have them in stock yet. Experts say more needs to be done to get the kits into the hands of people who could use them to save a life.

'I have had patients I've trained who've used kits to save people's lives in the community'

A kit contains naloxone, a syringe, gloves and instructions. (The Associated Press)

People who are concerned a friend or loved one could overdose on opioid drugs like heroin or fentanyl can turn to their pharmacists for help.

Since June 24, kits containing naloxone – a drug that reverses overdose effects – have been available to pharmacists to give out to Ontario health card holders for free over the counter.

But Kelly Grindrod, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo's school of pharmacy, said fewer than 10 pharmacies in Waterloo region carry the kits.

"In theory, you can get it at any pharmacy in the region, but like anything that's new … it takes time for pharmacies to actually understand this, so we're working with pharmacies in the region to train them," Grindrod said.
Pharmacists in Ontario are able to hand out naloxone kits - such as this one from the Ontario Addiction Treatment Centre in Kitchener - over the counter and for free, but more needs to be done to get the kits into pharmacies in the first place, experts say. (Kate Bueckert/CBC News)

'It's made a difference'

In fact, when a CBC News reporter went to find a kit in Kitchener's downtown core, it wasn't possible. Several pharmacists said they either did not carry the kits or they were out.

Jennifer Coutu from the Canadian Addiction Treatment Pharmacy, at 509 Park St. in Kitchener, had the kit on hand.

She said it's hard to say how popular the kits are because it's difficult to assess how many kits are needed in the community.

"I know from the ones I've dispensed, it's made a difference. In terms of popularity, not everyone who needs one is taking one, but we have lots who are," Coutu said.

"I have had patients I've trained who've used kits to save people's lives in the community," she said. "The most striking thing that people tell me is that if they would have had it sooner, they would have been able to save a life. So, we're a little late on this, but at least it's out there now and we're getting it into the hands of people who are witnessing these overdoses and can use it quickly."
Local public health officials have warned street drugs, such as heroin, could be laced with fentanyl, which makes them more potent and an overdose more likely. (Getty Images/age fotostock RM)

Ask for the kits

Grindrod said they are working with local family doctors and pharmacists to get naloxone kits to people who need them.

She said she has heard of a variety of people who have expressed interest in the kits, including one whose girlfriend had overdosed in the past and a mom who was concerned her child was experimenting with drugs.

The best thing you can do is go into your pharmacy and ask for it.- Kelly Grindrod, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo school of pharmacy

"You think you're using a Percocet you buy in the street and in fact, it's also got fentanyl in it," she said of drugs being used by recreational users. "It's so potent that if you don't know that's what you're getting, that's where overdoses can happen really fast."

And the kits are not just for recreational users, she added. People who have prescriptions for opioids are at risk, too. Pharmacists see prescriptions for high doses, and if patients aren't careful, it could be deadly.

Grindrod encouraged people to speak to their pharmacists if they wanted to know more about getting a kit.

"The best thing you can do is go into your pharmacy and ask for it, and even if they don't have it one that day, hopefully within, say, a week, they can get themselves in order, figure out how to give it out and provide it [to] you," she said.

Ontario report

This map shows the number of opioid users in Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network in 2014. The numbers are based on residents who are Ontario Drug benefit recipients (Ontario Drug Policy Research Network)

A report released Thursday by researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), St. Michael's Hospital and the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network showed numbers related to opioid use across the province.

The number of users and those receiving therapy was based on residents who are Ontario Drug benefit recipients. Those numbers did not include recreational users.

  • 20% of Ontario drug-benefit recipients on prescription opioids
  • ​86 Ontario doctors investigated for large opioid prescriptions

The data was broken down by Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs).


  • The Canadian Addiction Treatment Pharmacy was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story.
    Nov 11, 2016 10:11 AM ET