opioid drugs

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. 

How the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act Can Help Prevent Drug Overdoses and Deaths

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

There is an increasing number of Canadians overdosing or dying from the use of opioids. The Public Health Agency of Canada has estimated that at least 2,458 Canadians died from an opioid-related overdose in 2016, which amounts to almost seven deaths every day.

On May 4, 2017, the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act (“Act”) became law as part of the Government of Canada’s approach to address the growing number of overdoses and deaths caused by opioids (pain relieving drugs, including fentanyl). Many of these deaths are avoidable if medical attention is obtained quickly, but evidence demonstrates that witnesses to an overdose do not call 911 for concern of police involvement.

The Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, was quoted as saying,

During an overdose, a call to 911 can often be the difference between life and death. We hope that this new law, and the legal protection it offers, will help encourage those who experience or witness an overdose to make that important call, and save a life.

WHAT LEGAL PROTECTION IS GRANTED BY THE ACT?

This Act provides legal protection for individuals who seek emergency help or witness an overdose. An overdose is defined in the Act as a

 physiological event induced by the introduction of a controlled substance into the body of a person that results in a life-threatening situation and that a reasonable person would believe requires emergency medical or law enforcement assistance.

This Act can protect you from charges for possession of a controlled substance, i.e. drugs, under section 4(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

This Act also protects people in breach of the following conditions under section 4(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act:

  • Parole;
  • Pre-trial release;
  • Probation orders;
  • Simple possession; and,
  • Conditional sentences.

It does not, however, provide legal protection against more serious offences, such as:

  • Outstanding warrants;
  • Production and trafficking of controlled substances; and,
  • All other crimes not outlined within the act.

The Act applies to all people seeking emergency support during an overdose, including the person experiencing the overdose. It also protects anyone who seeks help, whether they stay or leave the overdose scene before help arrives.

WHAT ARE OPIOIDS?

Opioids are drugs with pain relieving properties that are used primarily to treat pain. Over the counter opioids (i.e. Tylenol 1) can be purchased at the pharmacy without visiting a doctor to treat minor aches and pains, like headaches or tooth aches. There are also opioids that are prescribed by a doctor to relieve medium to severe pain, like after surgery.

Fentanyl is an extremely strong opioid that is prescribed for people with extreme pain, like cancer, and should only be used under medical supervision.

This type of drug can produce euphoria, or a high feeling, which leads them to be used improperly. Examples of opioids that can be prescribed medications, such as:

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

Doctors sometimes prescribe opioids for conditions, such as:

  • Acute moderate to severe pain;
  • Chronic pain;
  • Moderate to severe diarrhea; and,
  • Moderate to severe cough.

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.

WHAT IS AN OVERDOSE?

An overdose can occur when one has ingested too much of an opioid. Opioids slow down the part of the brain that controls breathing. If you take more opioids than your body can handle, your breathing slows, which can lead to unconsciousness or death. Signs of an overdose include:

  • Person can’t be woken up;
  • Breathing is slow or has stopped;
  • Snoring or gurgling sounds;
  • Fingernails and lips turn blue or purple;
  • Pupils are tiny (pinned) or eyes are rolled back;
  • Body is limp.

WHAT TO DO IN CASE OF A SUSPECTED OVERDOSE

In case of a suspected overdose, the following is recommended:

  • Check to see if the person is breathing. Look, listen and feel.
  • Call 911 immediately. Tell the operator that this is a suspected overdose, so the emergency crew can bring naloxone (a medication that can temporarily stop or reverse an opioid overdose).
  • Do not leave the person alone. Wait until help arrives. If you must leave, turn the person on their side to avoid possible choking.
  • Try to keep the person awake and remind them to take frequent deep breaths.
  • If you are concerned that people you know are using opioids, you can get a naloxone kit from the public health unit or a local pharmacy.

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.

 

 

 

How Can We Reduce Fentanyl and Opioid Drug Overdoses?

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Reported deaths from opioid drug overdoses have been on the rise across Canada and the United States, due in large part to the increased use of opioids such as Fentanyl, heroin and morphine. Since OxyContin was taken off the market in 2013, users have been turning to Fentanyl and heroin which may also be responsible for the increase in overdoses.  Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid 40 times more potent than heroin, prescribed to treat chronic pain in patients already tolerant to other drugs such as morphine or oxycodone. The drug has been gaining in popularity among opioid addicts recently. The drug is typically used in pill form or as a transdermal patch, intended to release the drug over 72 hours, but the drug is also often brought in from places where there is little regulation, such as China and South America.  According to police, the drug has also been turning up mixed into heroin and fake OxyContin pills, often without the knowledge of users. Problems arise when Fentanyl is mixed into street drugs by people who have no chemistry backgrounds and no understanding of the drug’s toxicity.

Many jurisdictions have begun implementing programs to try to reduce overdoses. Just this week, Nova Scotia announced that it would be introducing take-home naloxone kits by January. Naloxone is a medication that acts as an antidote and can reverse an overdose caused by an opioid drug. Toronto already has several naloxone programs in place. To get naloxone, people must be known users and must complete a program. But some people feel it should be easier to access and available over the counter. In British Columbia, RCMP officers will be equipped with and trained to use Naloxone on a person who has overdosed.

Naloxone addresses a dilemma drug users face when someone overdoses: they fear calling 911 will result in an arrest, and so they do nothing to help the person in distress. Many states in the United States have made naloxone available without a prescription in an attempt to save lives. Another way to decrease the number of fatal overdoses would be to implement Good Samaritan laws to protect people from facing potential drug charges when they call 911 after someone they are with overdoses. The focus should be on saving lives and increasing awareness, not on arresting users who do the right thing by calling 911.

To speak with an experienced criminal defence lawyer, please contact Affleck & Barrison online or at 905-404-1947.

Sources:

http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2015/09/21/toronto-overdose-deaths-jump-dramatically.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/fentanyl-overdose-kit-nova-scotia-naloxone-1.3259781