A St. John’s harm reduction organization says it knows of at least two more people who died due to suspected drug overdoses over the weekend, leading to calls for the provincial government to take a firmer stance on harm reduction.
The deaths, reported by employees of the Safe Works Access Program (SWAP), paired with a report from Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical examiner indicates that at least 11 people have died due to overdoses in the last month.
Tree Walsh, a St. John’s harm reduction advocate and one of SWAP’s founders, said the reports are deeply concerning and more should be done by the province to educate and inform about harm reduction.
“The lack of education kills people. [It’s] as simple as that,” Walsh said Monday.
“Even though the government introduced naloxone a few years ago when the opioid crisis was recognized in the rest of the country, they failed to provide information on what harm reduction is.”
Harm reduction centres around making sure people can use drugs safely, Walsh said, as opposed to trying to prevent their use entirely.
Last week, police warned residents that fentanyl is being found more frequently in street drugs and most commonly in cocaine.
Speaking with CBC News on Monday, RNC media relations officer Const. James Cadigan said police have had to use naloxone kits — an injectable drug that temporarily reverses overdoses by blocking opiate receptors — when responding to calls in recent weeks.
Walsh said part of the work needing to be done by the province should include a provincial education platform for both the public and workers in the health-care sector.
Addressing the stigma around the use of naloxone kits is key, she said, especially as opioid-laced drugs are becoming more prevalent.
“[Naloxone] is not about facilitating drug use, it’s about eliminating it by helping the people reduce the harm to themselves,” she said.
“Cocaine users don’t normally carry a naloxone kit because they don’t use opioids. But now, the upper is laced with a downer. So the last thing someone would think in a bunch of cocaine users is that there’s an opioid overdose in the room, but that’s the reality. And the reality is made worse by lack of education.”
Government looking at public safety messaging
When asked what concrete steps government can take to address the problem, Walsh said more should be spent on prevention education — and called on Health Minister Tom Osborne to do it fast.
“Mr. Osborne, instruct your harm reduction section to get it together,” she said. “Produce a provincial education platform. Not only for the workers, but a public one as well. Because if it’s not introduced sooner, more people will die.”
Osborne said the department is working on that and met as recently as Monday morning to discuss possible public safety messaging.
“We don’t know if it’s a trend or a spike. It is very concerning, it’s something that we are obviously looking at,” Osborne said speaking at an unrelated news conference on Monday.
“I don’t know if you can eliminate death or access to drugs. But we, we work to try and reduce it. We work to try and educate. … We are with very heavy hearts today because of the spike recently.”
Osborne said the province is continuing to make naloxone kits widely available. Over 400 have been distributed to downtown St. John’s bars and other areas, with 800 more on the way, he said.
Both Osborne and Cadigan said if people are planning to use drugs, having a kit nearby could be the difference between life and death.
“The RNC taking a harm reduction approach is the approach that is going to save lives. And that is our focus,” Cadigan said.