The Quebec government has announced that naloxone, the fast-acting drug used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, will soon be free and accessible in pharmacies across the province in an effort to prevent a full-blown fentanyl crisis.
"Making it available for free, that is the answer," said Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette. "But the real answer to this growing situation is about prevention, and there will be a comprehensive strategy put on the table by the end of this year."
The measure is part of a larger plan municipal and public health authorities are rolling out as the number of drug overdoses and deaths related to fentanyl, a powerful opioid and painkiller, has spiked in Montreal over the last year.
Dr. Carole Morissette, the doctor in charge of the response to the fentanyl crisis with Montreal Public Health, recently called fentanyl's growing presence in the city a "public health emergency."
Barrette said the situation in Quebec right now isn't as critical as the one unfolding in British Columbia, where more than four people a day are dying from illicit drug use, and most street drugs are found to be laced with fentanyl.
But Barrette said providing wider access to naloxone is a crucial step in preventing more deaths in Quebec.
"We are taking measures and putting in place those measures so that we do not get there," he said, adding that it wasn't "a question of costs, but a question of saving lives."
The decision is being praised by frontline community workers, who have been pushing for easier access to naloxone.
Louis Letellier de St-Just, the president of Cactus Montreal, a community group that works with intravenous drug users, said the development was "very encouraging," but there is still more to be done.
"What we need to face the opioid crisis is to have an increase of the hours of the safe injection sites and give community organizations the possibility to distribute naloxone," he said.
Police officers, firefighters to be able to give drug
Under the new plan, people will no longer have to undergo special training in order to be allowed to administer naloxone.
The decision means that police officers and firefighters, like their counterparts in other provinces, will be authorized to be equipped with naloxone kits and to be able to administer naloxone in case of an overdose.
In August, harm reduction workers and local politicians had called on the Montreal police service to reconsider its position on carrying the drug, saying it would save lives.
The provincial government has also ordered an investigation of prescribing patterns and accessibility of opioids, with the help of Quebec's College of Physicians.
Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois said much of the preventive work is already underway, but, with the recent rash of opioid overdoses in Montreal, it was necessary to take swift action.
"I want to reassure the public," said Charlebois. "We're in prevention mode."