MONTREAL — A drug used to temporarily reverse the effect of fentanyl overdoses will be offered free of charge in Quebec pharmacies.
The province will follow the example of at least Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in offering the life-saving naloxone without people requiring a prescription.
It is an attempt to stem a full-blown problem as the number of cases rises in Quebec — with another possible two occurring Wednesday night.
Earlier in the day, Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois and Health Minister Gaetan Barrette announced that naloxone would be made widely available.
Charlebois said police officers will also be able to carry the kits and administer the drug to people who are overdosing.
She added that about 90 per cent of Quebec paramedics have received training on administering the medication.
Barrette said Quebec isn't facing a crisis, but he called the situation worrisome.
"It's not about costs, it's about saving lives," he said, adding that naloxone costs less than a dollar per dose.
Barrette said Quebec's College of Physicians is also monitoring doctors who prescribe too many opioids.
He added that medications prescribed in large doses are too frequently found on the black market and he hopes to see disciplinary measures against doctors who over-prescribe.
The province's announcement came the same day as two men overdosed in a tunnel linking the Bell Centre to a subway station. Both were found unconscious with needles in their legs and one was in cardiac arrest.
A 40-year-old man was in critical condition on Thursday and a 32-year-old man was stable.
Montreal police Const. Benoit Boisselle said the younger man told police they'd bought heroin. Authorities have asked for an analysis of the injected substance.
Technicians used naloxone on both men, said Urgences-Sante ambulance service spokesman Steve Kouloumentas.
Paramedics in Montreal and Laval have had access to naloxone since 2012 and all have had training to administer it since 2015.
"It does make a difference, the antidote helps us alleviate some of the signs and one of the worst is cardiac arrest or respiratory arrest," Kouloumentas said.
The province's coroner's office said 12 deaths in Quebec were linked to fentanyl overdoses in August alone and 24 lives were saved thanks to naloxone.
In a related development, Montreal police made five arrests and eight seizures on Wednesday in connection with an Aug. 25 overdose that killed two men. It's one of several cases the force has publicized in recent weeks.
They said they found heroin, opioids, marijuana and roughly $20,000 in cash. The five suspects were scheduled to appear in court Thursday afternoon.
As for the current situation, paramedics are gathering data for health authorities to ensure it doesn't spiral out of control.
"We're not calling it a crisis, but it's something that we're monitoring," Kouloumentas said.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press