Liberals say they'll back prescription heroin, drug checking services to fight opioid crisis

The federal government will support new treatment options for drug addicts, including giving them prescription opioids or pharmaceutical grade heroin, backing quality testing of street drugs and helping provinces set up overdose prevention sites in emergencies.

'Our government has made it clear, however, that we have no plans of decriminalizing drugs at this time'

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said the federal government will support a study to find out if former inmates who received drug treatment while serving their sentences have gone on to reoffend once released. (CBC)

The federal government will support new treatment options for drug addicts, including giving them prescription opioids or pharmaceutical grade heroin, backing quality testing of street drugs and helping provinces set up overdose prevention sites in emergencies.

The federal health minister made the announcement in Calgary, where she was attending the Issues of Substance Conference being held by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

"We plan to support innovative pilot projects that will provide a safer opioid alternative such as dilaudid to people who use drugs at supervised consumption sites," Ginette Petitpas Taylor said in a speech this afternoon.

This is already being done in Vancouver and Ottawa.

The federal government is also seeking formal advice on a proposal to remove some restrictions to diacetylmorphine (heroin) so that it can be part of a comprehensive list of treatment options for opioid use disorder.

So far, this is only being done at one clinic in Vancouver, which many see as the city at the epicentre of the opioid crisis.

Petitpas Taylor added that the federal government will also consider whether there are too many barriers for doctors who want to prescribe methadone as a drug treatment program.

Drug checking services

The federal government has already streamlined the process that groups use to apply for a supervised drug injection sites. A few years ago, only two existed in Canada, while today there are over 25.

Petitpas Taylor says the application process can take some time, so the government is committing today to work with provinces to make it easier for communities to set up a temporary, or pop-up site, while the formal application goes through the process.

Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor outlines new initiatives in the government's fight against the growing opioid crisis at a conference in Calgary. 0:56

"When people make the application for the exemptions, it takes a bit of time," she said. "And if there's a crisis on the ground, I've instructed my officials, we really have to look outside the box to make sure we can still process them in a timely fashion but to make sure they have a temporary measure in place in order to offer services."

The government also said it will allow drug testing services at any supervised consumption site that want to offer the service. 

Decriminalization

The government will also fund a study into "rates of reoffences for offenders released into the community who received medication assisted treatments during their sentence."

Elaine Hyshka, assistant professor at the University of Alberta's School of Public Health, said that she thinks "a lot of us in the past few months, several months, have been feeling frustration at a sort of stalled response at the federal level."

But Hyshka wants the federal government to go further and decriminalize minor possession of all drugs.

"People are dying at home, alone, because they're using alone, because they don't want to disclose they're using. Until we decriminalize drugs we will not end stigma and it's needed now," Hyshka said.

Petitpas Taylor rejected that idea Wednesday, saying her government is exploring other avenues.

"We recognize that the opioid crisis is a very complex crisis. There's not one agency, one level of government that can deal with this. Our government has made it clear however that we have no plans of decriminalizing drugs at this time," Petitpas Taylor told reporters.

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