opioid crisis

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. 

Rising Numbers of Opioid Overdoses in Canada

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

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. 

Judges Respond to Opioid Deaths on the Rise in Canada

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Canada, amongst other countries, is facing an opioid crisis. Between January 2016 and June 2018 more than 9,000 Canadians died from the use of opioids. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that opioid overdoses are increasing in our country.

Opioids are medications that can relax the body and help relieve pain, such as fentanyl, morphine, oxycodone, and hydromorphone. Opioids are drugs that can affect your mind, mood, and mental processes, which may bring about the feeling of being euphoric or “high”.

In Canada, the majority of those that have accidentally died as a result of opioids (72%) have involved fentanyl, a highly potent and addictive opioid. Fentanyl is considered up to 100 times stronger than morphine and is often mixed into opioids sold on the street. Therefore, users do not know the potency of the drugs that they are ingesting.

Canadian judges are well aware of the opioid crisis in this country and are therefore handing down harsh sentences to those found to be trafficking and importing fentanyl.

THE CASE OF PHARMACIST WASEEM SHAHEEN

In March, 2018, an Ottawa pharmacist, Waseem Shaheen (“Shaheen”), was sentenced to 14 years in prison for dealing fentanyl out of his pharmacy. Shaheen was found to be responsible for trafficking more than 5,000 fentanyl patches (street value of more than $1,000,000).

Shaheen was involved in an elaborate scheme, which even involved faking a robbery at his own pharmacy. He was found guilty of trafficking fentanyl, public mischief for reporting a fake crime to police, and insurance fraud.

Ottawa Police Detective Guy Seguin stated,

I think the sentence is a clear message…. Hopefully a clear deterrent in the court that the justice system takes this very seriously, and hopefully other professionals like Mr. Shaheen will not be involved in trafficking fentanyl.

Justice Wadden, when handing down this harsh sentence, stated,

Mr. Shaheen is not an addict. None of the fentanyl was for his own use. His only apparent motivation was greed. As a trained professional, he would have been aware of the debilitating and deadly effects of this drug in the hands of addicts. Yet he conducted a drug trafficking scheme worth over a million dollars, profiting on the misery of others.

Shaheen was stripped of his pharmaceutical license and lost all three of his Ottawa pharmacies. However, he has not begun serving his sentence as he is appealing his conviction.

THE CASE OF ASHLEY BRODERICK

Ashley Broderick (“Broderick”), a woman from Kitchener, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to traffic fentanyl. She was one of 14 people arrested as part of a lengthy police investigation called Project Titus, which concluded with the confiscation of 1.5 kilograms of powdered fentanyl found under a bed in her home. The fentanyl had a street value of $450,000 and 398 grams of methadone were also seized, with a street value of $11,500.

Broderick was discovered to be the second in command of an organization that sold fentanyl, methadone, and cocaine throughout southwestern Ontario. When Broderick was arrested, she was found with $2,900 cash, two cellphones, and a debt list. Police also found that she had two hotel room keys, and uncovered 21 grams of fentanyl and debt lists showing hundred of thousands of dollars in drug transactions in one of the hotel rooms.

In April, 2018, Justice Craig Perry sentenced Broderick to 13 years in prison stating that the sentence needed to reflect the seriousness of the crime. He emphasized that the primary principles of sentencing were denunciation and to deter others from committing similar crimes. At the time, this was the stiffest fentanyl sentence for trafficking handed down in Ontario.

THE CASE OF BARNA OLVEDI

The stiffest fentanyl sentence in Ontario was handed down by Justice Petersen in November, 2018. Barna Olvedi (“Olvedi”) was sentenced to 15 years in prison for importing and 12 years concurrent for trafficking fentanyl. Olvedi was found to have imported 499.5 grams of 100% fentanyl from China, which would have a street value of at least $14.9 million.

In his reasons for sentence, Justice Peterson stated:

Mr. Olvdei’s offences are extremely serious. He was not only in possession of a large quantity of pure fentanyl citrate for the purpose of trafficking, he also imported it into Canada from overseas. … I have concluded that a sentence of 15 years imprisonment is proportionate to the gravity of the offence and Mr. Olvedi’s degree of personal responsibility and moral blameworthiness. This sentence satisfies the principle of restraint and achieves parity with sentences imposed on other offenders w ho committed similar crimes in similar circumstances, though there are no other cases in which the circumstances involved importing a large quantity of 100% pure fentanyl citrate.

As both the Canadian government and the judiciary respond to the opioid crisis in Canada, Affleck & Barrison LLP will continue to provide updates through this blog.

If you are facing a drug related charge or have any questions regarding your legal rights, contact Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947. We offer a free consultation and are available to help you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.