Saskatoon mayor says co-ordination needed to battle opioid crisis

Charlie Clark says opioid addiction needs to be tackled in Saskatchewan before it becomes an even worse problem.

Charlie Clark chatted fentanyl with other mayors, federal government

Mayor Charlie Clark would like to see more co-ordination in battling opioid addiction across Saskatchewan. (Albert Couillard/CBC)

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark says opioid addiction needs to be tackled in Saskatchewan before it becomes an even worse problem.

Last week, mayors from across Canada talked to federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale on a teleconference to come up with a national strategy to deal with drug overdoses and addiction.

Clark spoke to CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning about the meeting and what he would like to see done about the issue.

How did it go?

I'm heartened that there is this level of collaboration.

Different cities are being affected in different ways at this point. The real message from places like Toronto and Hamilton and Vancouver, where fentanyl is hitting very hard, is that everyone needs to be out ahead of this, because when it hits your city, it can be extremely devastating.

We've already seen a number of families ripped apart in Saskatoon, with fentanyl in particular. We had nine overdoses in 2015 and are still getting the numbers in for 2016.

In Vancouver, they had 914 deaths in 2016, which is a pretty incredible number when you think about it. It's creating a tremendous amount of trauma in the streets and in the neighbourhoods, including front-line responders who are out there trying to deal with this and trying to stem the tide of people dying.

What did the federal government tell you about how it will be helping cities deal with the crisis?

There were four areas of focus that Minister Philpott talked about: prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction.

One of the big challenges that we're facing right now is data. There's a big lag — a year to two years — and with most cities, knowing how and where the overdoses are happening and then getting gathered and organized and able to help the folks with treatment efforts. They are working together and wanting to engage with the provincial governments and local emergency services on better data gathering.

The other discussion was around treatment, and getting the federal government to make sure there are resources in place to have the treatment programs so that people can get immediate help.

In Vancouver, that's one of the things that they've really identified: that even if they get somebody who's obviously addicted to fentanyl and in a state of addiction, sometimes treatment can take four to five weeks. So, even if they want to get that treatment in place, by the time four to five weeks passes, usually somebody has deteriorated much worse.

In Saskatoon, we have some treatment facilities, but we've identified here as well that that immediate treatment is something that we want to get co-ordinated.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller, is estimated to be around 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine. (CBC)

The other piece was housing, and the whole approach of Housing First is something we've talked about in Saskatoon — to have a co-ordinated system that you combine treatment with housing and you get people into stable situations, and to try and get enough stability in their life that they can get off these drugs and get back into society.

The last piece that the federal government is looking at is enforcement, and to look at the way prescription drugs are prescribed to reduce the likelihood of being taken and sold on the street and the trafficking of drugs into the country, which is something that Minister Goodale focused on. So, there's a multi-pronged approach that's being looked at. I think it's important that we're a part of that.

Was there any update on funding or how the federal government is going to help cities in all those areas?

The federal government has put out an initial $30 million ...

Naloxone kits are one of the key things. A lot of cities are having firefighters and paramedics carrying around naloxone kits, which can be used as an immediate intervention to reduce the impacts of fentanyl. So, there's funding for that. 

As well, as part of the health accords that are being signed by the provinces, [there's] money towards addiction and housing that we've been talking about. At the Big City Mayors' Caucus conference that occurred last month, there was a lot of talk around how they want to focus their funding around how they can bring housing and addictions together. 

Is that enough or does there need to be more done?

It was very clear we need to have the provinces at the table. The provinces are responsible for health care, and that's a huge area.

In Saskatchewan, there has been talk of striking a task force here as well, along with First Nations governments, and that was part of the call, making sure all levels of government are working together. We know, here, the tribal council has been working on the harm reduction approach, possibly safe injection sites, and that co-ordinated effort that I've been talking about for some time really seems to be at the heart of success here: that everybody's working together and using the best data possible.

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning