The City of Toronto set a grave record last month for opioid fatalities

Austin Devaraj

March 4, 2021

TORONTO – Canada’s largest city has hit record numbers for opioid related overdose deaths. “This is the highest number of opioid overdose-related deaths reported by paramedics since we began monitoring in 2017,” reads a damning report, released on February 12 by Toronto city officials.

The municipality has seen a steady increase in opioid related deaths over the past few months as it battles the COVID 19 pandemic while remaining under a stay at home order issued by Ontario Premier Doug Ford in January.

Advocates are calling for city council to impose safe consumption locations. “We need to implement a regulated supply of all drugs for starters,” says Guy Felicella, a former addict who now works at the British Columbia Centre for Substance Abuse.

He believes this policy is long overdue but could lead to overdose preventions if addicts could have safe access to drugs instead of buying them off the streets.

“It’s heartbreaking to see such preventable deaths,” Felicella said. Felicella believes poverty, trauma and systemic racism are some reasons for the deaths.

He says people of colour don’t feel comfortable approaching the healthcare system when seeking help leading to unsafe usage of opioids.

This month, south of the border, Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalise possession of hard drugs. Felicella notes decriminalisation is a solution but doesn’t think it will happen for a long time here in Canada.

According to a Public Health Ontario report released in November 2020, the deaths “continue to disproportionately impact men aged 25 to 44 residing in neighbourhoods with higher material deprivation.”

Sheila Jennings, the Ontario Regional Director for Moms Stop the Harm, an advocacy group for drug addiction issues, believes Toronto’s housing problem plays a big role in the crisis.

“The rental market housing is completely unaffordable for many folks, where rent is very high and the monthly government check for Ontario Works is not enough to buy basic food, let alone pay rent,” Jennings said.

Jennings proposes outreach vans to help connect those who are suffering from addiction to resources. The vans, she says, will go around with harm reduction supplies.

Jennings notes all city buildings should have at least a Nalonxe Kit on each floor, which is easily accessible to prevent overdoses.

“We need harm reduction boots on the ground,” Jennings said.

Toronto’s Associate Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Rita Shahin says the rise in cases is due partly as a result in shortage of space in safe consumption sites across the city.

“Many of the services that people have relied on, including lifesaving services like supervised consumption services, have had to reduce their service capacity to accommodate necessary public health precautions, such as physical distancing, to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Shahin.

Shahin describes Toronto’s unregulated drug supply as “unpredictable and toxic.”

The City says it has taken initiatives like iPHARE, the Integrated Prevention & Harm Reduction Initiative, a collaboration with various community agencies to provide support to combat the ongoing crisis.