SALT LAKE CITY — Six Utahns die every week from an opioid overdose, and nationally, the epidemic continues to cripple communities.
People on the front lines of the epidemic here in Utah welcomed their counterparts from Canada today to collaborate on the next wave of solutions.
Their latest ideas may seem radical to some in Utah, but the Canadians have a similar crisis on their hands.
“One of the things you can do is build trust and relationships. You’ve got to meet people where they’re at,” said Nick Boyce.
Boyce, the co-organizer of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said that’s Canada’s approach to helping illicit drug users.
Health professionals, law enforcement and substance abuse and mental health counselors from Canada and Utah today shared strategies at the Capitol to address the opioid epidemic.
In 2017, Canada saw a 30 percent increase in opioid-related deaths. Despite the human toll, the opioid epidemic has taken on our communities, Utah has actually seen a drop in the number of opioid overdose deaths over the last two years.
Traditional approaches in North America have focused on drug use as a criminal and moral issue. In Ontario, they’re focusing on a harm reduction model: building relationships with the users and directing them to services, even if it doesn’t happen right away.
“We think it’s better to not treat it as a criminal and moral issue, but look at why people are struggling in the first place,” said Boyce. “Treat it as a health issue. If you reduce the stigma, people are able to come and talk more openly.”
He said they’ve done needle exchanges for two decades, an approach started in recent years in Utah.
Now, Canada is opening drug consumption rooms, also known as overdose prevention sites, where drug users can get high without breaking the law.
“People can bring in their pre-obtained drugs and use on site,” said Boyce. “We have medically-trained staff that can respond in the event of an overdose.”
The key to that approach, he said, is making a human and productive connection with that person.
“A lot of people think we’re enabling drug use,” Boyce said. “What we're enabling is people to stay alive. We’re enabling them to come in and talk honestly about what’s happening, what’s going on in their lives without fear of judgment, without fear of criminal prosecution.”
At one consumption site in Toronto in January: 2500 injections, 90 overdoses reversed, and no deaths at any consumption sites.
“Nationally, this is a conversation that’s happening,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health.
The state epidemiologist said we’re not there yet in Utah, but it is something to consider.
“It’s a conversation,” said Dunn. “So, it’s all about educating the public and policymakers about evidence-based practices to address the opioid epidemic.”
In Canada, it’s a progressive approach they expect will make it long term difference.
“Giving them needles, giving them the drugs. It’s about building the trust, building that relationship and then you have an opportunity for change there,” said Boyce.
Canada is also trying a pilot program in which they give the drug users pharmaceutical-grade opioids.
It’s a tough problem, they believe, that demands experimental solutions.
“Canada is doing some really innovative things that I think we can learn from in Utah to really take our interventions to the next level,” said Dunn.