As opioid overdoses reach epidemic proportions across North America, how can communities like Waterloo Region fight back?

One answer, local officials say, is to prioritize getting drug users help over penalizing them for having the drugs in the first place.

“We’ve got to work on trying to get people help,” Waterloo Regional Police deputy chief Kevin Thaler said Wednesday.

“You can’t arrest every person on the street that’s got an issue with use of illicit substances.”

Last year was a record year in Waterloo Region, with 38 deaths blamed on overdoses. There were 28 overdose deaths in the first four months of 2017 alone.

The arrival of the opioid crisis has also resulted in an increase in discarded needles being found around the region.

Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig says the issue has been even more pronounced recently, with the number of needles found on public property “ballooning” since September.

Community groups have formed around the issue, organizing needle pickup events, while the city has  agreed to pick up all discarded needles reported by Cambridge residents.

Craig says he wants to see other levels of government take action around discarded needles, given that his city isn’t the only one affected by the issue.

“It should not be up to citizens, nor should it be up to the lower-tier municipalities, to be going around picking up needles,” he says.

Thaler doesn’t think the responsibility for picking up discarded needles should fall to police officers either. Instead, he says, police should be focused on stopping opioids and other illegal drugs from getting into the community in the first place.

“It’s not illegal to possess needles. Throwing them on the ground is littering. Is that the best use of police resources, to respond and pick up needles?” he says.

Cambridge has created a task force to address the issue, bringing together a wide array of community groups and agencies – an initiative Thaler calls a “brilliant step forward.”

Craig says he’s concerned that there isn’t enough information about the extent of the opioid issue being made public, and that the spotlight is focusing primarily on Cambridge for an issue also affecting other cities.

“It is not a Cambridge issue, and I think that has been misplayed very badly in some areas of the news media,” he says.

Police also don’t see opioids as an issue in any way unique to Cambridge. According to Thaler, police have been dealing with more calls in the Cambridge core, but they are classified as being for unwanted people as opposed to anything specifically drug-related.

Another response to the opioid crisis came earlier this year in Parliament, with the passing of the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act.

Spearheaded by B.C. Liberal MP Ron McKinnon, the legislation spells out that anyone who calls 911 to report an overdose will not be penalized for drug possession.

The law was based in part on research done in Waterloo-Wellington, where it was found that 911 calls were placed for less than half of all known overdoses.

“Calling 911 is essential during a medical emergency, and is often the difference between life and death,” says Michael Parkinson of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council.

“We know people wanted to do the right thing.”

The issue, Parkinson says, is that many people were afraid they would be charged with drug possession if they alerted the authorities to an overdose while they were present.

Thaler says Waterloo Regional Police have had a longstanding policy not to charge people in those situations, and are glad to see it being enshrined in law across Canada.

“If someone’s in distress and they’ve overdosed, call 911,” he says.

“You’re not going to be charged. We want the person to get help, and we want them to be safe.”

Waterloo Region recently launched an online survey asking for feedback about creating safe injection sites for the region’s drug users. Proponents of such sites argue that they can improve the health and safety of users while reducing the number of needles dumped elsewhere.

With reporting by Nicole Lampa