Surrey RCMP could become the first police force in Canada to equip officers with naloxone, a drug proven to save patients who have overdosed on opioid drugs like heroin and fentanyl.
The move comes as major cities across the country are seeing spikes in overdoses and deaths because of opioids—largely due to fentanyl, a particularly potent drug.
“Fentanyl is really changing the discussion about harm reduction and changing overdose death and reducing overdoses,” Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, tells Yahoo Canada News. “There’s just a realization that this drug [naloxone] is really helpful, and it’s really safe.“
Last week, CKNW in Vancouver reported receiving a leaked memo discussing plans by the Surrey RCMP to train and equip 40 officers to carry and use naloxone.
The move is a response to the increase in overdoses related to fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is 100-times stronger than heroin or morphine. Overdose deaths have increased across Canada, and the Fraser region has the highest number in the province, Dr. Marcus Lem, medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority, tells Yahoo Canada News.
Overdose deaths from prescription opiates now account for half of all drug-related deaths in the country, according a report released last year by the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. And the Canadian Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use says there is an average of one fentanyl-implicated death in the country every three days — a figure it says is likely an underestimate.
“There really is a sense of urgency when you take a look at the increase and the number of deaths we’ve had from overdoses,” Dr. Lem says. “If we were getting the same number of deaths from an infectious disease, people would be up in arms. I think law enforcement is justifiably concerned. We in health care have been concerned for a long time.”
If approved by the RCMP at provincial and national levels, the Surrey Mounties would be the first police force in the country to equip officers with the antidote to opioid overdose, Dr. Lem says, though there are several American police forces carrying the drug.
“I don’t know of any other police forces in Canada,” he says. “It’s very encouraging because we were approached by the RCMP, and they have been familiar with a lot of the harm-reduction work that our program has been doing.“
The Surrey RCMP proposed the pilot project with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and Fraser Health.
“In the interest of public and officer safety, the Surrey RCMP, in partnership with Fraser Health and BCCDC, has advanced a recommendation for a pilot project to senior management of the RCMP in B.C. that would allow trained Surrey RCMP police officers to carry and administer the life-saving drug Naloxone to counteract certain drug overdoses,” Surrey RCMP Cpl. Scotty Schumann tells Yahoo News Canada in a statement. “This recommendation comes after the dramatic increase in fentanyl-related deaths seen over the past few months.”
Naloxone works by reversing the effects of opioid drugs, restoring breathing within a couple of minutes and giving the patient time before a first responder arrives to administer further treatment.
“Naloxone is safer than adrenaline or epinephrine, which folks with allergies are carrying, It’s safer than even administering oxygen,” Dr. Lem says. “It really has no other use other than reversing overdoses for opioids and it’s extremely safe. If naloxone is given to somebody who is not overdosing and does not need it, it’s harmless.”
The province’s centre for disease control has operated a program for three years that involves training drug users and those in their lives to use naloxone (also called by its brand name, Narcan) in the case of an overdose. Since the launch of Fraser Health’s Take Home Naloxone program in 2012, 256 overdose reversals have been reported.
Other Canadian police forces have examined the possibility of training officers to use naloxone to prevent death by overdose. The Vancouver Police Department is also looking into equipping its officers with naloxone. The decision has been internally reviewed but is on hold until a nasal form of the drug is available in Canada, police chief Adam Palmer told reporters last week after a police board meeting.
The drug comes as both an injection and a nasal spray, but so far only the injection is approved in Canada. Health Canada announced a review of naloxone’s status as a prescription-only drug in July, but the process could take approximately 18 months.
“We know from our experience that naloxone is quite safe,” MacPherson says. “We’ve seen the experience in the U.S. and we really need to be accelerating the process — and the most important part, to me, is getting it to be a non-prescription drug.“
Several areas of the United States have moved to make the drug more easily available, in response to increases in fentanyl use and overdose deaths in that country as well. The nasal form of naloxone has not yet been submitted to Health Canada for approval for sale, Dr. Lem says.
While he cannot say for sure when Surrey RCMP will be fully trained and ready to carry naloxone, the proposal has moved along to the provincial branch of the force for approval, Dr. Lem says, and he hopes that his agency will be equipping officers with the drug in a few months.
And aside from the immediate benefit of preventing deaths from overdose, naloxone is important as part of a larger public health strategy to fight addiction, Dr. Lem says.
“The ultimate purpose of all these harm reduction activities is not just prevention of infectious diseases and save the lives of drug users, although that is our primary outcome,” he says. “Ultimately, harm reduction activities are opening the door for services so that we can help people back into society.”