Officials at a two-day summit on the opioid crisis say Canada needs to adopt drug policies that focus on providing a safe drug supply and decriminalization as the COVID-19 pandemic makes the crisis worse than it’s ever been.
There were over 6,200 opioid-related deaths in Canada in 2020, which is about 17 deaths per day.
That means more than two Canadians are dying as a result of drug toxicity every hour.
Ontario reported 2,425 opioid-related deaths last year, and the overdose death rate in the city of Hamilton was 34 per cent higher than the rest of the province.
There were 124 deaths as a result of opioids in the city last year, up from 105 in 2019.
While data on deaths in 2021 is only available up to February, Hamilton public health has confirmed 26 deaths in this year and paramedics have responded to 458 suspected opioid overdoses since Jan. 1, with 92 of those in June alone.
Marcie McIlveen, an outreach coordinator with the Hamilton-based harm reduction organization Keeping Six, said there are plenty of overdoses that go unreported.
“All the stats that are given to public health or paramedics don’t include overdoses where people that are using respond to themselves … because naloxone is available,” McIlveen said.
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“Like, we give out naloxone, other places give out naloxone. People are saving each other.”
McIlveen, 39, has been working with Keeping Six since June, but six and a half years ago, she was using drugs regularly.
She said it took about a dozen substance treatment programs before she was able to get to a point of abstinence.
“I say every day how grateful I am that I’m no longer in a lifestyle that causes me to sell dope, because … I have no way of knowing if what I would be selling would be safe.”
McIlveen said it’s “terrifying” how drastically the toxicity of the drugs on the street has increased since she stopped using drugs.
Dan Werb, executive director of the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation and scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said the unregulated drug supply in the illegal market has been getting increasingly more potent and toxic for decades, but the pandemic has made things even worse.
“There were border restrictions and restrictions on movements that affected international drug trafficking and national drug trafficking across Canada,” Werb told Global News. “Every industry has been affected by COVID, and illegal drugs are no different.”
He said deadly amounts of fentanyl, carfentanyl, and even etodesnitazene — a high-potency synthetic opioid — are being found on the streets.
Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition from British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, said the country has failed to adopt drug policies that would lead to fewer drug toxicity deaths.
“It’s a barbaric drug policy we have that keeps sustaining this situation,” said MacPherson.
“We need to get over the fact that people use substances and we need to put a very comprehensive consumer protection framework in place so that people won’t die from using these substances. These are needless deaths. They’re preventable deaths.”
Canada’s minister of health wrote an open letter to provinces and territories last August, urging them to increase access to safer, pharmaceutical-grade alternatives to illegal drugs.
While some regions have taken up safe supply programs, it’s not something that’s been adopted on a wider scale, and the approval issued by the health minister last year is set to expire in September.
“People are being poisoned by substances because they’re an unknown quantity, an unknown dosage, and unknown composition, and that’s what our policies have created: a very large, well-integrated, ‘controlled by criminal organization’ drug market that we need to move away from as quickly as possible,” said MacPherson.
He said the overall response to COVID-19 has demonstrated that governments are capable of acting quickly and responding appropriately to a public health crisis, so the fact that there hasn’t been a coordinated and comprehensive approach to the opioid crisis is telling.
“COVID has shown us the folly of half measures,” said MacPherson. “We need to take the message and learnings from COVID and apply them to other issues such as drug policy.”
Getting to Tomorrow: Ending the Overdose Crisis is a two-day dialogue being held in the Hamilton region this Tuesday and Thursday, hosted by Keeping Six, the AIDS Network, and the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, with the goal of pushing for policy changes that will improve the quality of life for people who use drugs.
In Hamilton, McIlveen said that means getting a second safe consumption and treatment site (CTS) up and running sooner rather than later.
“When you listen and choose not to act when you could act, it’s telling … like, I think more can be done. I think our city can have another CTS. I think there’s room for one or two more.”
Currently, there is one such site temporarily located at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church on James St. North.
Its move to a new location on Cannon Street East is being protested by a group of residents in the Landsdale neighbourhood, who object to its proximity to several schools, daycares, and residential homes.
A permanent city-run site was approved in 2019, but nothing has come of that since then.
“Public Health Services understand there are community agencies that are pursuing applications for CTS sites, and we continue to work alongside these groups to provide any information or linkages to our services as they make their applications.”
Global News reached out to Ontario’s Ministry of Health to ask whether more safe consumption sites or safe supply programs were being considered for Hamilton and other regions of the province, but did not hear back by publishing deadline.