Health Canada will review the prescription-only status of naloxone, a drug that reverses heroin and other opioid overdoses.
Many provinces have called for better access to the drug, which can reverse an overdose in one or two minutes. Without it, a user’s breathing could slow or stop, leading to brain damage or death.
In B.C., a take-home naloxone program coming up on its three-year anniversary has been credited with reversing at least 240 overdoses, though the true figure is believed to be much higher.
As of this summer, more than 4,000 people have been trained to administer naloxone as part of the take-home program, including both opioid users and their friends, families and service providers.
There are now 80 sites where users who have a prescription from a doctor can pick up the kits. About 2,400 kits have been dispensed since August, 2012.
A common concern has been that only opioid users who are at risk of overdosing can be prescribed the drug, while it would likely be a friend or parter who would administer it should the user overdose.
Naloxone given in the absence of opioids produces no effect. In B.C., all ambulance crews can carry and administer the drug, but police officers and firefighters cannot.
Health Canada said it is typically a drug manufacturer that requests a status change, but the federal health department can initiate a review at any time.
"In this case, several provinces have requested that Health Canada consider the switch in status could be made safely and help reduce unnecessary deaths caused by overdose," the department said in a news release issued Friday.
Jane Buxton, harm-reduction lead at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said it was "great news" that Health Canada will review the drug's status.
"They have been receiving requests from many directions to consider changing to non-prescription," Dr. Buxton wrote in an email.
Health Canada said it will first gather information about naloxone use from various provinces for an initial assessment. It it finds that benefits of expanding access appear to outweigh potential risks, it would then hold a public consultation.
The full process could take 18 months.