Health minister says legislative changes coming to 'turn the tide' in opioid crisis

Canada's health minister says legislative changes are coming within the next few months to help address this country's deadly opioid crisis.

Health experts urging declaration of national public health emergency

Opioids include prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, fentanyl and morphine, as well as illegal street drugs like heroin. (Toby Talbot/Associated Press)

Canada's health minister says legislative changes are coming within the next few months to help address this country's deadly opioid crisis.

Jane Philpott said she's been talking to her colleagues in the public safety, foreign affairs and justice departments on the issue, and "a number" of pieces of legislation are coming to help "turn the tide on this crisis."

Philpott and Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins, both doctors themselves, convened a two-day meeting in Ottawa to tackle the issue with provincial health ministers, addiction experts and affected families. It finished Saturday morning.

Out of the summit came a signed a joint-statement to address the crisis, including a promise by Health Canada to look at changing the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to improve access to safe injection sites.

Trying to reduce number dying

"We are fighting against a very worrisome trend and we're not going to get to zero deaths immediately. What we're going to need to do is flatten that curve as quickly as we possibly can and move it down rapidly so people are not dying at the rate they are now," Philpott said.

"We are working toward the appropriate amendments that will be necessary to ensure that supervised consumption sites in communities that want and need them will be available."

With calls to increase border security and stop the flow of illegal fentanyl from China, Philpott says new legislation would involve multiple departments.

"This will take the whole of government, the whole of society" to tackle, Philpott said at the closing news conference.

Health Canada will also issue new prescribing guidelines to doctors in January and increase access to suboxone, a substitute painkiller, in First Nation communities. 

B.C concerns

British Columbia Health Minister Terry Lake told a private radio station that there would have been 'much greater federal action' if the crisis had hit Ontario with the same force as it hit his province. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

But the plan doesn't go far enough for everyone who was at the table.

British Columbia's health minister left Ottawa feeling frustrated about what he's calling a lack of urgency.

"The lights are coming on but we can't wait. We need urgent action to save lives in British Columbia," Terry Lake said.

Lake said B.C. — which has seen more than 600 opioid overdose deaths alone this year — should act as a warning sign.

"We need a high-level relationship with China to to stop the flow of illegal fentanyl, which is a poison," he said.

Lake said he'd also like to see federal legislation to control pill press machines, the devices used to turn raw drugs like fentanyl into counterfeit tablets for sale on the streets.

Lake said Ottawa is aware of the issue but hasn't shown that it's willing to back up commitments with money.

Calls for a public health emergency

In April, British Columbia declared a public health emergency to deal with the opioid crisis.

Some health experts have urged Philpott to declare a national public health emergency over the misuse and abuse of opioids and the rising number of overdose deaths. The minister said she's open to that, if it gives authorities a stronger ability to act on the problem.

Canada has the world's second-highest per capita consumption of prescription opioids, said Philpott, noting that in some parts of the country, drug overdoses are killing more people than motor vehicle accidents.

Do you have questions about opioids? Share them with us below and we'll pose your questions to our medical contributor Dr. Peter Lin on Sunday on News Network. 

With files from The Canadian Press