I would be happy to make a statement.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and members of the committee, for the opportunity to come and be with you today to speak to the opioid crisis, which I gather was one of the reasons you wanted me to appear before you today.
Thank you, Chair, for introducing my colleagues from Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
I have a few opening remarks, and then, of course, I look forward to your questions.
Before I start, I want to thank this committee for the fantastic work you've been doing on a whole number of fronts and to let you know how much I appreciate the work being done here and how much I look forward to further studies coming out of this committee. In particular, I want to thank you for your study and report related to the opioid crisis.
As you know, this is a serious matter facing our country. Of course, we have differing views on certain strategies, but we know that overall this is an issue that needs to be addressed from a public health perspective. It's not an issue in which partisanship needs to interfere. We need to focus on saving the lives of Canadians.
I think this committee is well aware of the statistics and the fact that hundreds of Canadians have died already this year. If you look at British Columbia alone, up to the end of October there were over 600 deaths related to opioid overdoses. I'm sure that the committee also heard a great deal about addiction as you were doing your study. You heard people talk about the fact that addiction can happen to anyone, that it's a chronic illness, that it affects people of all ages and of all socio-economic groups, and that it impacts communities all across this country.
These matters are urgent. The number of deaths related to opioids has complex roots. It's dimensional, and it requires swift action on behalf of all of us in this vocation.
I have been addressing this matter since the very beginning of my responsibilities as Minister of Health, and I have been making decisions in an attempt to promote health and to save lives. I believe we need to continue to have a health-focused approach to the opioid crisis.
Some of you know that last month I was in British Columbia and visited front-line workers. I was at Fire Hall 2 in downtown Vancouver and met with paramedics and police officers and firefighters as well as many health care providers. Hearing from them about what this means on the ground and the challenges they face every day in trying to save the lives of victims was very moving for me.
Later that month I, along with the Ontario Minister of Health, Mr. Hoskins, hosted a large gathering that some of you were able to attend. It was a conference and then a summit, where we had representatives of government, health care professionals, and community members talking together about how we need to respond.
We have taken many government actions to date on this, including, of course, the work of this committee. We have continued to focus on a public health approach. You have no doubt heard of some of the announcements yesterday, which I'll refer to shortly, but first of all I wanted to make sure you were aware of a number of steps that have been taken so far.
One of the early steps we took was to make sure that naloxone was available in a non-prescription status. We also heard about the need for a naloxone nasal spray, and we were able to expedite an emergency importation mechanism to get nasal spray into the country. We were later able to expedite an approval of naloxone nasal spray for production in Canada.
We realized that one of the things we needed to do was to focus on harm reduction. In that light, early on I approved an exemption for the Dr. Peter AIDS Centre to operate a supervised consumption site in Vancouver. We were also able to give an unprecedented four-year renewal to Insite, which is an extraordinary site based in downtown Vancouver.
We also were asked to reverse the federal prohibition on the use of diacetylmorphine, which is pharmaceutical heroin. It is proven as a medication for the treatment of addiction, and it is now available under a special access program.
Last week we took steps to schedule fentanyl precursors, making it harder to access some of the chemicals used to make illicit fentanyl. Yesterday we introduced amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and other acts.
It's important to recognize the big picture of why we did that. It is fundamentally taking a health-based approach to problematic substance use, and the new Canadian drugs and substances strategy replaces the former national anti-drug strategy.
It formalizes the government's approach to drug policy, which is comprehensive, collaborative, compassionate, and evidence-based. The lead for the strategy has now returned to the Minister of Health, and we have reinstated harm reduction as one of the four pillars of drug policy, along with the pillars of prevention, treatment, and law enforcement.
You can ask me more details later, but I wanted to give you a bit of an overview of what's included in some of the details of that bill. One of the things we did was to streamline the approach for communities that feel there is a need to have a supervised consumption site in the community. In order to do that, we removed the 26 criteria that had been in place in the previous legislation, and we replaced those with a requirement for the Minister of Health to demonstrate evidence of public health and public safety benefits.
This comes in part from the 2011 Supreme Court decision, which stated that where the evidence indicates that a supervised injection site will decrease the risk of death and disease and there's little or no evidence that it will have a negative impact on public safety, the minister has a responsibility generally to grant an exemption.
The Supreme Court also gave us guidance on what kinds of things the Minister of Health should take into consideration in making that decision, and there were five factors in particular that were emphasized.
The first is that there has to be a demonstration of community need. Second, there has to be a demonstration of community consultation and support. Third, the minister has to have an understanding of the potential impact on crime rates. Fourth, there need to be regulatory systems in place, and fifth, there needs to be evidence that the site has the appropriate resources in place.
Given all this, we know that there is an abundance of evidence that well-established and well-maintained supervised consumption sites in communities that want and need them will save lives, prevent infection, and introduce people into the health care system in a way that will not increase crime rates and will not increase problematic drug use.
There are a number of other elements in the bill that you may want to ask about. You have probably heard that we will be prohibiting unregistered importation of pill presses and encapsulators to help to address the matter of the illicit supply, production, and distribution of drugs.
We will be removing the exception in the Customs Act that currently prevents border officers from inspecting mail that's 30 grams or less. This will allow us to stop the importation of dangerous substances such as fentanyl, which are often shipped in these very small packets.
There are a number of other amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. They're there to help increase the flexibility that we have to address emerging risks. They allow us, for instance, to temporarily add a substance that we believe poses significant risk to public health to a temporary schedule on the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act pending a comprehensive review and a decision on permanent scheduling.
All in all, the response to the opioid crisis requires a comprehensive approach. It requires actions like those we took yesterday to essentially stop people from drowning, as it were, but we also have to take steps to address root causes, the reasons people fall into the water in the first place, if we are to use that water metaphor.
The Canadian Mental Health Association talks about the opioid crisis having multiple roots. Some of those roots are in the health care system. Canada is the second-highest per capita consumer of opioids, and we took steps during the summit to address the roots of the crisis with the role of prescription drugs. We brought together at that meeting seven provincial and territorial health ministers and a broad range of stakeholders, and we developed a very interesting and impressive list of actions that these 42 organizations are committed to taking in a joint statement of action. There's also a commitment on our part to report on the progress quarterly.
I thank you for being here today. Thank you for working alongside us to be able to address this very serious matter that affects some of the most vulnerable Canadians. We need swift action on this. We need a renewed focus on a public health approach that includes harm reduction and addresses root causes. We absolutely have to work collaboratively to save the lives of Canadians and promote their health.
Thank you very much.