TORONTO -- The Ontario legislature has passed a private member's bill aimed at combating abuse of the pain killer fentanyl, which is blamed for at least 655 deaths in Canada in the past six years.
Fentanyl is a powerful opiate that usually comes in transdermal patches that slowly release 72 hours worth of medication through the skin, but its abuse by people looking to get high has soared since 2009.
The bill from North Bay Progressive Conservative Vic Fedeli, which passed final reading with support from all three parties, incorporates the so-called patch-for-patch program which is already operating in 45 Ontario communities.
People with a prescription for fentanyl would only be given new patches with the drug when they turn in old, used patches.
Fedeli says his bill can save lives, noting it's been more than a year since the last fentanyl death in North Bay, which averaged two such deaths a year since 2007.
The policy was developed by the North Bay drug strategy committee, which worked with police, doctors and pharmacists to come up with the "Patch4Patch" program.
The fentanyl patches sell for $400 to $600 on the streets, and are often sold in pieces because of the high cost.
"The patches are cut up and sold to addicts who find ways to smoke, ingest or inject it," said Fedeli. "Not only are there serious health considerations, sales of these patches are empowering the criminal element and straining police resources."
The number of fentanyl-related deaths in Ontario jumped from 63 in 2009 to 111 in 2013, with 466 deaths during those five years.
"It is a problem in every single community in northern Ontario," said NDP health critic France Gelinas. "It is a drug of choice for many people with an addiction."
The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse says police seizures of fentanyl, both diverted prescriptions and illicitly produced, increased over 30 times from 29 in 2009 to 894 in 2014.
It warns there are also fentanyl analogues in powdered form, mainly from China, that Canadian organized crime groups use to produce illicit patches and to combine with heroin or cocaine to make "exceptionally potent" drugs.
"Those taking these drugs may not be aware of the deadly combination posed by the presence of fentanyl, which also puts frontline officers at risk when handling the drug," said a bulletin issued in August by the OPP's Provincial Operations Intelligence Bureau.
As little as 100 to 150 micrograms of fentanyl powder -- which compares in size to a few grains of table salt -- can prove deadly, warned the OPP.
Fentanyl abuse has been a growing problem across the country, but especially in Western Canada. Saskatchewan has announced plans to follow the lead of British Columbia and Alberta and will distribute a take-home kit with an antidote to opioids such as fentanyl, morphine and heroin in a pilot project.
Several members of Ontario's governing Liberal party, including deputy premier Deb Matthews, spoke in favour of Fedeli's bill, which needs only the formality of Royal Assent before being proclaimed into law.