With opioid overdoses on rise, naloxone to be offered for free in Quebec

In order to prevent a full-blown fentanyl crisis, the life-saving naloxone will be available free of charge across 1,900 Quebec pharmacies as of Friday.

Pharmacists will be able to provide maximum of 8 vials of naloxone, along with syringes

Naloxone, a drug used to temporarily reverse the effect of fentanyl overdoses, will be offered free of charge in Quebec pharmacies. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

In order to prevent a full-blown fentanyl crisis, the opioid antidote naloxone will be available free of charge across 1,900 Quebec pharmacies as of Friday.

"We know that obviously in Quebec it's not as critical as in other provinces, but we don't have to get to that level," said Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, who made the announcement in a news conference Thursday.

The injectable antidote will be available to anyone over the age of 14 who has a Quebec health card, "without questions and without an investigation," said Barrette.

The measure was first announced by the Quebec government in September as part of a larger municipal and public health plan authorities are rolling out with the rise in the number of drug overdoses and deaths related to fentanyl, a powerful opioid and painkiller.

Frontline workers have been calling for an action plan to fight fentanyl and prevent a crisis situation similar to the one unfolding in British Columbia, where 914 people died this year from overdoses linked to the drug.

Naloxone is a life-saving antidote used during opioid overdoses. (David Horemans/CBC)

The announcement was made the same day as Laval Public Health called for residents to be vigilant after two drug-related deaths since June were found to be related to fentanyl.

Quebec to keep registry

Under Quebec's new program, people "in distress" who don't have a health card will still be able to obtain naloxone.

That provision is designed for "homeless people, who most of the time don't have their own medicare card," said Barrette.

"It's about saving lives, it's not about regulations," said Barrette.

Pharmacists will be able to provide a maximum of eight vials of naloxone, along with the syringes necessary to inject it to anyone who requests it. They will also be able to provide instructions on how to administer the antidote.

"If a person is witnessing someone overdosing, or knows someone who is, they can administer the drug," said Barrette.

The province will also keep a registry to document how much naloxone is given away as part of its program. The program, which has a budget of $200,000, will be re-evaluated every three years.

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said providing naloxone for free will prevent overdose-related deaths. (Radio-Canada)

Quebec's national public health institute (INSPQ) said 19.3 per cent of opioid-related deaths in Quebec in 2016 were caused by fentanyl.

"While Quebec has been relatively spared from the opioid crisis, the situation is very worrying, and we need to have the means to act when it comes to prevention regarding people most at risk of overdosing," said Lucie Charlebois, Quebec's public health minister.

Police won't carry naloxone yet

Under the new plan, police across the province are still not required to be equipped with naloxone. 

Outreach groups in Montreal have pushed the city's police force to join their counterparts elsewhere in the country and equip their officers with naloxone kits.

Charlebois, however, said that more than 90 per cent of Quebec paramedics already carry the antidote and are trained to use it.

The province is considering whether to have police officers carry the antidote as well, as part of a broader opioid strategy, which is still in development, according to Barrette.

The strategy may also include allowing all community organizations, alongside pharmacies, to offer naloxone.

"We're reflecting on it," he said.

With files from Ainslie MacLellan and Radio-Canada