Federal government pledges millions for opioid crisis

$76.2 million announced to bring more life-saving measures to underserved communities and mitigate the impacts of the illegal drug supply

Federal health minister recommends training on using medication naloxone to reverse overdoses

Naloxone should be easily available all across Canada, the federal health minister said. (David Gunn/CBC)

The federal government is putting more money into fighting the opioid crisis and addressing what Canada's health minister says is the "alarming growth of methamphetamine use."

Health Minister Ginette Petipas Taylor announced to a group at a recreational centre in Surrey, B.C., that the government will invest $76.2 million to bring more life-saving measures to underserved communities, to mitigate the impact on the illegal drug supply and to identify emerging drug threats such as the growing use of methamphetamines.

Petipas Taylor says people often frame the opioid crisis as being a big-city problem but many of Canada's mid-sized cities are some of the hardest hit.

The minister says some cities suffer from provincial governments turning their backs on harm reduction, resulting in uneven access to services across Canada.

Petipas Taylor and her staff have recently been trained to use the overdose-reversing mediation naloxone and she says it's a training session she would recommend to all Canadians.

Part of the funding is provided for evaluation and increased access to pharmaceutical-grade medications as safer alternatives to the contaminated illegal drug supply.

Harm reduction 'truly essential'

"Harm reduction means treating substance use not as a moral failure but rather as a medical one," she said Wednesday. "While some might see harm reduction as controversial, I see it as truly essential."

The money will also be used to build knowledge of effective interventions and to break down barriers that prevent people who use drugs from seeking help.

Petipas Taylor says $22.3 million from the recent federal budget will be used to get naloxone kits and overdose training sessions to underserved communities so more Canadians can save lives.

"In my mind there is no reason, and I stress absolutely no reason, why naloxone can't be easily available all across Canada and training sessions can't be accessible to everyone."

The federal government reported 11,577 apparent opioid-related deaths occurred between January 2016 and December 2018.

Overdose survivors can also be left with life-altering brain injury.

Fewer U.S. overdose deaths 

Elsewhere on Wednesday, preliminary statistics were released suggesting that U.S. overdose deaths last year likely fell for the first time in nearly three decades.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted the provisional numbers showing nearly 68,000 drug overdose deaths were reported last year. The number may go up as more investigations are completed, but the agency expects the tally will end up below 69,000.

Overdose deaths had been climbing each year since 1990, topping 70,000 in 2017.

Any levelling off or decline in overdose deaths is good news, but the overdose death rate in the U.S. is still about seven times higher than it was a generation ago.

"We're still in a pretty sad situation that we need to address," said Rebecca Haffajee, a University of Michigan researcher.

The improvement was driven by a drop in deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers. Those decreases were offset somewhat by continuing increases in deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine and psychostimulants like methamphetamines. Overdose deaths often involve more than one drug.

With files from CBC News and Associated Press