Canadian Drug Policy Coalition
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  Tuesday, August 27, 2013



International Overdose Awareness Day is held on August 31s each year. Commemorating those who have met with death or permanent injury as a result of drug overdose, it aims to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death, especially for those mourning the loss of family and friends. It also spreads the message that the tragedy of overdose death is preventable.

“Overdose is preventable and we can make a difference by responding in our communities. People who use drugs are very interested in improving their health and preventing overdose. We have had a take-home naloxone program operating at Toronto Public Health for 2 years and it has been such a success - being used with a positive outcome in 100 overdoses. We need to take action to make these programs more available, we have already lost too many people,” stated Shaun Hopkins, Manager of The Works in Toronto.

With only a few provinces actively reporting overdose fatalities, it is difficult to gauge the extent of opioid-related overdose deaths and injuries across Canada. But overdoses are a rising concern as more people are prescribed opioid medications. The lack of data is a disturbing issue in Canada especially when we look to the U.S. where comprehensive data from the US Centres of Disease Control is available. 

“Overdose is not a unique phenomena specific to any group of people. It can happen within any family, community, or population and the effects can be devastating. It is time that we stop ignoring overdose, stop ignoring that people are dying, and stop believing that it cannot happen to us or our loved ones. It is time that we develop and embrace the education, awareness, and prevention programs that will save lives,” said Ashley Cherwichan, Clinical Instructor at the Sheldon M. Cumir Health Centre in Calgary.

In recent years, Canada’s approach to overdose has fallen behind more progressive efforts around the world – even in the U.S., the White House’s 2013 National Drug Control Strategy includes an enhanced focus on overdose prevention and intervention.

“Canada needs a national overdose prevention strategy that focuses on raising awareness of the simple and effective ways we can help prevent and treat overdose,” said Donald MacPherson, Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

Events in Canada marking International Overdose Awareness Day 2012

Ottawa: This year Ottawa is hosting an event at the Human Rights Monument on Elgin St. (at Laurier St.) in front of City Hall from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm. This year's theme is awareness and prevention. After the guest speakers at the Human Rights Monument, there will be a walk to Parliament Hill from 12:00 to 12:30 pm.

Toronto: Corner Drop-In at St. Stephen’s Community House will hold a simple memorial event from 9:30-10:30 am, 260 Augusta Ave. The Works, a harm reduction program, will offer an overdose training blitz to mark this day.

Edmonton: This year Streetworks is hosting a Raising Awareness and Honouring Lives Lost Event on August 30, 12:00 to 1:30 pm, City Hall, Candlelight Service, speech by the Medical Officer of Health, Information booths, raffle with proceeds to Overdose Awareness, sponsored by Streetworks.

Montreal: AQPSUD (L’Association Québécoise pour la promotion de la santé des personnes utilisatrices de drogues) will hold a vigil to honour the lives lost to overdose on August 28th, at 6:00 pm in Berri Square.

Calgary: August 30th, 9:00 am to 3:00 pm, The Calgary-based Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre will host an overdose awareness booth. Peer outreach will also be provided throughout the community. The goal of the day is to raise awareness that overdose affects all walks of life and is preventable. 

Victoria: A coalition of groups is holding a Community Gathering and Call to Action followed by a vigil and open mic from 11:00 to 2:00 pm on August 30th on the Pandora Green in the 900 block of Pandora Avenue.



Overdose Backgrounder

  • Rates of overdose from opioids (synthetic drugs like fentanyl and Oxy) and opiates (drug like heroin) appear to be on the increase in Canada and recent policy changes to contain the supply of opioids may have the unintended effect of increasing overdoses. In some places, opioid overdoses have surpassed car accidents as a cause of death.
  • Opioid overdose injuries and deaths are preventable, but the scale-up of overdose prevention programs requires key policy and legislative shifts. At its 2012 annual meeting, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs passed a resolution that recommends that countries establish a comprehensive overdose strategy. To date, Canada has not acted on this resolution, even though the recent U.S. National Drug Control strategy includes a focus on overdose prevention and treatment.
  • Naloxone, a safe and effective emergency medication that can temporarily reverse opioid overdoses, must be made more broadly available. Naloxone is currently a prescription-only medication but could be rescheduled to make it available over-the-counter similar to an EpiPen used to treat allergic reactions. Naloxone must also be included in provincial drug plans to ensure that its costs are not so high that people cannot access this drug when needed. Using naloxone to treat opioid overdose is also cost-effective. In the U.S., costs of a drug overdose have been estimated to be approximately $37,000 while a naloxone kit costs approximately $25.00.
  • A few pioneering communities in Canada have implemented take-home naloxone programs. These programs provide training to people who use drugs and all potential witnesses to an overdose on how to prevent, recognize and respond to an overdose including how to administer naloxone, provide emergency first aid and call for help. These programs should be expanded to every community dealing with drug overdose. The U.S. has 180 similar programs.
  • Barriers to calling 911 during a drug overdose would be reduced by implementing national 911 Good Samaritan legislation. This legislation could provide limited immunity from drug charges for people who ask for help during a drug overdose. 12 states in the U.S. have passed similar forms of legislation, often with bi-partisan support.
  • Given that opioid overdoses are occurring among people who are using these drugs as prescribed, ensure that prescribers provide information on the risks of overdose to their patients.
  • Canada lacks a national body that can produce timely comparative data on drug overdose injuries and deaths in Canada. Data is only available sporadically. We must ensure that we have data on drug overdose injuries and deaths so that we can plan for the future. 

Media contacts:

Ashley Cherniwchan, RN, BSCN
Clinical Instructor, Harm Reduction

Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre,
Calgary, AB
(tel) 403 955 6574

Ashley Mollison

Programs Coordinator,
SOLID (Society of Living Intravenous Drug Users)

Victoria, BC

Douglas Haddow
Communications Coordinator
Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition is a partner project with the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA), a research centre based at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University's Vancouver campus. 


  Canadian Drug Policy Coalition
C/O Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction
Simon Fraser University
#2400 - 515 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 5K3

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