As our attention focuses on the mounting death toll plaguing our country and the entire world related to COVID-19, the numbers of those overdosing from opioids in Ontario is also on the rise.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has recently brought the frightening nationwide trend to the attention of the public.
According to federal data, more than 14,000 Canadians have died due to opioids in the last four years.
In Ontario, there has been a 25% increase in fatal drug overdoses from March to May 2020 in comparison to the same three month period last year.
Other provinces in Canada have also seen an increase of drug overdoses in the last few months. Alberta has reported an increase in opioid-related EMS calls from 257 in March to 550 in May of this year.
British Columbia has seen a 39% increase in overdose deaths in April of 2020 compared to the same month last year. B.C. also reported 170 deaths from overdose in May 2020, which was more than the number of COVID-19 deaths that month. During the three months that government measures of social distancing were put in place, more than 400 deaths due to overdose were recorded in B.C. as well.
CONTRADICTORY MESSAGES FOR DRUG USERS
Although overdose prevention sites continue to operate, physical distancing guidelines result in less individuals being able to use these services. These sites provide a space for those who use drugs to safely consume them and receive overdose response measures if necessary.
Recently, overdose prevention sites have changed their layouts, installed barriers and served fewer clients at a time or by appointments to ensure physical distancing measures were being employed. It has been reported that one site of this nature in Toronto that had an average of 100 visits a day is now seeing half of that number.
Staff who work at these supervised consumption sites began using personal protective gear while meeting with clients and during street outreach. Some clients became upset encountering staff dressed in this manner. Some felt that staff were sending them a message that they were dirty or that they have a disease.
The new measures to protect against COVID-19 may also cause difficulty for staff to establish and maintain trust with clients given all the physical barriers now employed.
These new safety measures are also entirely contradictory to the strategies that staff traditionally use to help drug users. Typically those that consume drugs are told never to use alone, whereas now they are being told to stay home and physically distance themselves from others.
SOCIAL ISOLATION MAY BE CONTRIBUTING TO THE OPIOID CRISIS
Feelings of stress, uncertainty, social isolation, and loss of access to services may also be contributing to the rising overdoses in Canada.
Those individuals who were actively using drugs at the beginning of the pandemic may be increasing their consumption. Those that were in recovery may have begun using drugs again, especially if they have encountered losses related to the pandemic or the loss of supports that they once had as a result of the pandemic.
Another factor to consider in the rising number of overdoses may be the additional access to money through the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) offered by the government.
COVID-19 IMPACTS THE DRUG SUPPLY CHAIN
During COVID-19, it is harder for individuals to access their drug of choice.
Disruption in international travel and closed borders due to the pandemic has made the unregulated drug supply very unpredictable, and possibly more toxic. As it has become harder to acquire substances from overseas, dealers and users are using whatever ingredients are available.
According to Guy Felicella, of the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use:
When (drugs become) more challenging to get, the potency goes up, the price goes up, everything goes up, and in that sense it becomes more deadly by the day.
DEMAND FOR MORE FUNDING AND DECRIMINALIZATION OF ILLEGAL DRUGS
Public health officials throughout Canada are pressuring the federal government for more funding for a safe supply of drugs in their provinces and cities.
A recent report from Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, outlines the growing concern in Canada:
The ongoing opioid poisoning crisis in Toronto and across Canada has intensified and been further compounded by the COVID-19 global pandemic. These dual public health crises are having significant impacts on people who use drugs in our community as well as their families, friends and loved ones. Services that people rely on, many of them lifesaving, have closed or significantly reduced their service hours and/or capacity.
In addition to extra funding, Dr. Eileen De Villa is requesting that the federal government decriminalize illegal drugs for the duration of the pandemic. This suggestion is made in an effort to promote a public health approach to the problem and not a criminal justice approach.
According to Nick Boyce, director of the Ontario Harm Reduction Network:
Laws actually incentivize drug dealers and suppliers to come up with new and different drugs. We learned this lesson in the 1920s with alcohol prohibition where people switched from drinking beer to toxic moonshine. We’re seeing that with the opioid drug supply now.
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.