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Harm Reduction Vending Machines Set to Be Canada’s Next Public Health Measure

Authorities in the city of Ottawa plan to install machines that dispense equipment for safer drug use, as harm reduction strategies become growingly popular across Canada.

In early January, the deputy medical officer of health of Ottawa Public Health said that authorities plan to install vending machines which dispense vital harm reduction equipment in five locations across the Canadian capital. Although the specific contents of the machines have not been decided upon, the Ottawa Citizen reports that they are likely to contain sterile needles – an important tool for preventing the spread of infectious diseases among people who inject drugs.

The planned introduction of these machines is the latest development in a year of important harm reduction strategies being adopted by either the national government or local authorities.

In March 2016, the government made it legal for naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioid use during overdoses, to be purchased without prescription. The provision of naloxone is increasingly important in Canada; between 2014 and 2015, around 13 Canadians were hospitalised every day due to opioid overdose.

In July, the city council of Toronto, Canada’s most populous city, approved the introduction of three supervised injection sites. Such facilities are also important for reducing overdoses, as health professionals are able to monitor people’s drug use and intervene if necessary. Eric Hoskins, Ontario health minister, praised the scheme as “an opportunity to … tackle addictions and narcotics misuse”.

Perhaps most famously, legislation was approved in September that allowed people to be prescribed diacetylmorphine, commonly referred to as “prescription heroin”. This will enable certain individuals who have problematic heroin use to access regulated heroin – but only “in cases where traditional options have been tried and proven ineffective”.

Jane Philpott, the federal health minister, announced in December that the national government was working to increase access to harm reduction services across the country by amending the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The legislative change, if passed, will loosen restrictions on the creation of supervised injection sites – allowing other parts of the country to follow Toronto's path.

The rise in the harms of opioid use in Canada during recent years illustrates that criminalisation has not worked effectively, and that a public health approach could offer greater success. The varied and important strategies that have been introduced in the past year are indicative of an ideological shift; a gradual awareness among Canadian authorities that the traditional prohibitionist approach has failed.

This ideology can also be seen in the Canadian government’s intention to legalise recreational cannabis in spring 2017. Jane Philpott has supported this reform on a harm reduction basis.

Speaking at the United Nations in April, she argued that legalisation will “keep marijuana out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals. While this plan challenges the status quo in many countries, we are convinced it is the best way to protect our youth, while enhancing public safety”.

Canada’s newly implemented, and intended, harm reduction strategies are too recent for their effects to be quantitatively measured. However, based on existing evidence of these strategies, the developments of the past year are likely to reduce the harms of opioids, and other drugs, in the long-term.

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