Bail Hearings

Opioid-Related Deaths Continue to Rise as the Pandemic Persists

Written on behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

The continuous news cycle regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada has detracted from the opioid crisis that continues to plague Canadians with numbers increasing since the border closure and limited access to services since March of 2020. 

During the first 15 weeks of the COVID-19 virus entering Ontario, it has been confirmed or suspected that 695 people suffered opioid-related deaths.  This is a 38% increase compared to the 15 weeks before the pandemic began. 

A report prepared by Public Health Ontario and its affiliates and published in November 2020 found that there were more opioid-related deaths among individuals using drugs alone, outdoors and in hotel/motel settings since the pandemic began in Ontario.  Approximately 74% of the opioid-related deaths were individuals who were alone at the time with no one available to administer resuscitation or naloxone treatment.  It is likely that these findings occurred as the province promoted physical distancing measures and reduced access to safer locations to use drugs, such as supervised consumption and treatment services. 

Researchers also found that opioid-related deaths are disproportionately impacting men aged 25 to 44 residing in neighbourhoods characterized by lower incomes, poorer housing, lower education and higher prevalence of single parent families.  Findings also demonstrated that opioid-related deaths were more prevalent in communities with higher populations of recent immigrants and/or racialized communities.  This finding was similar to the findings of increased infection and death rates for COVID-19 in these communities.

Experts in the field estimate that there were more than 2,200 opioid-related deaths in 2020.  This is a dramatic increase from the 1,512 opioid-related deaths recorded in 2019. 

WHAT ARE OPIOIDS?

Opioids are medications that can relax the body and have pain relieving properties. They can be purchased at the pharmacy to treat minor aches and pains or prescribed by a doctor to relieve medium to severe pain. 

Opioids can affect your mind, mood and mental processes, producing euphoria, or a “high” feeling, which often leads them to be used improperly.  The following are examples of opioids that can be prescribed medications:

  • Codeine;
  • Fentanyl;
  • Morphine;
  • Oxycodone;
  • Hydromorphone; and,
  • Medical heroin.

Dependency, substance use disorder and overdose are serious side effects and risks of using opioids. They have the potential for problematic use because they produce a “high” feeling.

Opioids should only be taken as prescribed, never be used by someone for whom it was not prescribed and never be taken with alcohol or other medication (except as prescribed). 

LATEST DATA ON THE OVERDOSE CRISIS IN CANADA

On December 16, 2020, the co-chairs of the federal, provincial and territorial Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses issued the following statement regarding data on opioid-related deaths in Canada between January 1, 2016 to June 30, 2020:

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, we were seeing early and promising signs that opioid toxicity deaths were beginning to decline in some areas of the country.  The national data released today offers insight into the severe and worsening impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the overdose crisis … Between April and June 2020, there were 1,628 people who died of apparent opioid toxicity – a 58% increase from the previous quarter.  …

This alarming evidence also shows that from January to June 2020, approximately half of accidental opioid toxicity deaths also involved a stimulant drug, such as cocaine or methamphetamine.  These data confirm that this crisis goes well beyond opioids, encompassing a wider range of substances.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Health Officer, and Dr. Jennifer Russell, Chief Medical Health Officer, appealed to the public to reach out to loved ones who may feel alone or isolated.  The doctors and co-chairs suggest the following measures to protect those vulnerable to overdose, including:

  • education regarding the signs of overdose;
  • carrying naloxone;
  • not using drugs alone;
  • not mixing drugs; and
  • reducing the stigma of those vulnerable to ask for help or visit a safe consumption site.

NEW CANADA PHONE LINE TO PREVENT OVERDOSE DEATHS

The National Overdose Response Service (“NORS), a new Canada-wide phone line, has been established to prevent overdoses by allowing all Canadians to dial a toll-free number and connect with a peer who can dial 911 for help if there is a concern or the client has become non-responsive.  This phone line aims to help those in locations without safe consumption sites or individuals who are afraid to visit a consumption site due to the perceived stigma.

This service is entirely anonymous.  The “peers” on the other end of the phone line are current drug users, recovered drug users or have personal experience with drug use.  Some community members answering the phones are frontline workers and others have been personally impacted by overdose.  They are not paid professionals.

If you are concerned about the risk of overdosing during the current lockdown, you can call toll-free 1-888-688-6677.  For more information, click here.

As both the federal and provincial governments continue in their efforts to tackle the opioid crisis in Canada as well as the current pandemic, Affleck & Barrison LLP will continue to provide updates through this blog.

If you have been charged with a drug related charge or have questions regarding your legal rights, please contact the knowledgeable criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947.  Our skilled criminal lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting our client’s rights.  For your convenience, we offer a 24-hour telephone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice.