Toronto Public Health has seen a rise in opioid-related emergency calls this summer, prompting three drug alerts and heightened concern among the city’s medical professionals.
The latest alert was on Sept. 7, after the city recorded 11 suspected fatal overdoses in the previous week alone — representing double the weekly average. It’s a local snapshot of a phenomenon a new report released last week shows is occurring across the province and even throughout Canada, with drug overdose deaths on the rise since the start of pandemic.
“We are in a drug toxicity crisis,” said Dr. Shovita Padhi, the city’s associate medical officer of health.
“We continue to monitor through our drug checking services and encourage people to have their drugs checked, but right now, there’s nothing … that we can determine at this point in time that’s driving these increased calls.”
Advocates say while the public health alerts may speak to a jump in overdose deaths in recent weeks, the issue of contaminated drug supply is not new. And until all levels of government commit to funding more harm reduction services and long-term policy changes, they say the opioid crisis will continue to worsen.
Nat Kaminski is the president of the Ontario Network of People Who Use Drugs, a provincial association that aims to shape drug policy. As a harm reduction worker in the GTA, Kaminski says governments need to “act swiftly” in the face of all of these deaths.
“Until we have something other than a poisoned drug supply to offer people who use drugs, and more funding and supports and services available in every city, we will continue to see people … die,” said Kaminski.
“We need more allies. We need more advocates. We need more funding.”
In Toronto, deaths have been rising, albeit unsteadily, in recent years. According to the city, preliminary data for 2022 shows that there were 508 deaths due to opioid toxicity in Toronto, compared to 590 the year before, representing almost a 100 per cent increase from 2019.
Padhi says Toronto Public Health is drafting a mental health and addiction strategy to “tackle this crisis from different facets” and is continuing to advocate for supervised consumption services. It’s also requested the federal government to decriminalize all drugs for personal use and shield young people from criminalization within the city.
In recent years, Ontario has mandated naloxone kits — medication that can reverse an opioid overdose — at high-risk workplaces, and launched a $90 million addictions recovery fund that runs until 2024.
Similarly, the federal government, in its latest budget, said it would invest $46.2 billion for provinces and territories to provide Canadians with “access to timely, equitable mental health and substance use services.”
Boost funding and services: harm reduction workers
Karen McDonald, team lead at harm reduction program Toronto’s Drug Checking Service, says the main thing driving overdose deaths is the “contaminated” as well as “toxic and unpredictable” illicit drug market.
McDonald says samples from the black market increasingly show a combination of high-potency opioids, inconsistent dosages and other central nervous system and respiratory depressants mixed in. The free and anonymous service has checked over 5,000 drug samples since opening in 2019.
“There’s no surprise that this is continuing to happen,” said McDonald.
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Since there’s a limit to the number of available and accessible harm-intervention services in the city, let alone the province, drug alerts are helpful in getting the word out, said McDonald.
But as a frontline worker, Dayn Kent says he sees the damage the latest strain of drugs is having on his community in real time, before drug alerts are issued to the public.
The coordinator of the consumption treatment service, Bevel Up at Regent Park Community Health Centre, says that’s precisely why such services need to be expanded with increased funding and staffing.
He points to his program, which has the capacity to administer a safe supply of opioids to about 45 people at any given time. That’s in contrast to the some 700 unique individuals who access the centre’s health services for drug-related concerns throughout the year.
“We need to get that safe supply up to three or four or 500 people … before we really start to see trends affecting the overall trajectory of substance use in our neighbourhoods,” said Kent.
To stay safe, McDonald says people can try to do smaller doses in the absence of drug checking to see how they react to the drug, and speak to workers in the community to understand what drugs are circulating.
Kaminski adds it’s important people don’t take drugs alone, and that companions learn how to use naxolone if it’s ever needed.
“People who use drugs deserve … a right to life,” said Kaminski.
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