Substance Use News, Summer 2017

Launching Legal Action Against Big Pharma

In the US, Louisville has joined other jurisdictions that are suing drug manufacturers over their roles and responsibilities in opioid crisis. “It’s time for the companies that started this epidemic and turned a blind eye to its consequences to take responsibility for the devastation they have caused,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer is quoted.

This is a move that follows lawsuits in Ohio, Illinois, Mississippi, and California. Earlier in the summer The Atlantic posted Are Pharmaceutical Companies to Blame for the Opioid Epidemic? comparing manufacturers’ knowledge of the potential for addiction to lawsuits against Big Tobacco, when companies were aware their products were addictive.

Don’t blame addicts for America’s opioid crisis. Here are the real culprits writes Chris McGreal. He also lays the responsibility on pharmaceutical companies, politicians, and regulators. “Too often that addiction began by following the advice of a doctor who, in turn, was following the drug manufacturers instructions.” It’s a move those in Canada might consider, according to BC’s former Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh in an interview from June following the launch of Ohio’s lawsuit. Clare Henning writes, [Dosanjh] “believes companies should be held responsible for not disclosing the full information about their products.” While a mighty move, these lawsuits can take years to move through the courts, so it’s not going to be a quick solution.


Making Change

As lawsuits aren’t swift, advocates, healthcare and service providers are asking what can be done right now? Turn to the BC Centre for Disease Control for thoughts in that direction. A June meeting and subsequent report (August) from the second BC Overdose Action Exchange includes voices from over 50 organizations representing people with lived experience, policy makers, public health leaders, government representatives, people working in academia, emergency health services, law enforcement, researchers and medical experts.

Ten action items address strengthening peer-based initiatives; policy (including drug laws and law enforcement); public health approaches to substance use; individual health concerns including access to treatment; fighting the stigma that people who use drugs face every day; and the structural social determinants of health that impact substance use.

Recommendations include

  • Capacity-building for people with lived experience and the expansion of peer-based organizations across the province. People with lived experience have intimate knowledge of the realities and need to be part of policy and program development.
  • Contaminated drugs are the problem; what is the solution? There are many. Making prescription opioids more available is just one; and allowing people to use them in different ways is another. This could be in low-barrier clinics; multi-option clinics, and even off-site with the knowledge people are using from a safe supply.
  • To better meet the needs of those who use drugs, pain management and substance use treatment need to be reviewed. Increasing access for youth, including families in an expansion of care, and increasing the number of doctors in substance use care are all noted.
  • Law enforcement and drug policy will all need review in harmony with other changes. It is suggested that training expand on trauma-informed care, mental health, and cultural competencies. Recognizing the importance of harm reduction is vital in this overdose climate.

Read the BC Overdose Action Exchange II Report in full People are asked to share the brief report far and wide.


An approach mentioned in the report above is drug checking. In an opinion piece, the BC Centre on Substance Use’s Ken Tupper suggests that BC should be looking to expand drug checking farther than its experimental sites. In Drug Checking Services Could Help Prevent Overdoses he writes,

Drug-checking refers to a service where individuals are able to anonymously submit samples of street drugs to have them analyzed to determine their chemical constituents. Drug-checking is grounded firmly in the overlapping terrains of public health and consumer safety.

Another option put forth (this one longer term in implementation than drug testing might be) is cannabis. Stephanie Lake and M-J Milloy penned Legal weed: An accidental solution to the opioid crisis? “Could cannabis legalization be a part of the solution to the opioid and overdose crisis? Increasingly, this is what the latest scientific research indicates,” they write.

They summarize different ways cannabis could be used and say that Canada’s movement towards legalizing pot: “could not come at a more desperate time. By increasing access to the drug for therapeutic and recreational purposes, we will have the opportunity to investigate substitution effects within different populations of people who use opioids.”


By the end of June, the number of overdose deaths had increased by 61% in comparison to June 2016. The crisis has no forseeable end, and all number of approaches considering harm reduction, public health and social determinants of health need to be on the table.



Questions? Feedback? Get in touch! 

Janet Madsen, Capacity Building and Knowledge Translation Coordinator,

[email protected]