Tackling the Overdose and Opioid Poisoning Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only public health crisis in Toronto. Over the past four years, 14,000 Canadians have died from an opioid overdose. These people are our friends, relatives, neighbours. And many have died due to opioid poisoning  the result of toxic, tainted drugs that continue to circulate throughout our city. 

Law-and-order and prohibition approaches have proven ineffective when it comes to opioids and the overdose crisis. Public health data and research show that harm reduction and safe supply approaches work. The reality is that the longer we wait to act, the more people will die.

COVID-19 has intensified this crisis, by closing many services (or significantly reducing the hours and capacity) that people who use drugs rely on, including supervised consumption sites. As a result, this April tragically saw the highest number of suspected overdose deaths since 2017. 

We cannot continue with the status quo. We need a new public health approach for people who use drugs, one that ensures they have access to services that can keep them safe. This approach must include new approaches for harm reduction and treatment services, including safe supply. 

Today, a new report from Toronto's Medical Officer of Health outlines a number of recommendations for the Board of Health to take action on the opioid crisis. One of the recommendations is to ask the Ontario Government to remove the cap on supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites. We know that these sites save lives, yet the province has restricted any more from operating. With COVID-19, the need for more sites  and for new models, such as virtual and phone-based supervised consumption  to be supported. 

The report also calls for the federal and provincial governments to support the City’s move towards a safe supply approach. In safe supply programs, people who use drugs are able to safely access legal, regulated prescription opioids as part of treatment. This means they do not have to not rely on drugs acquired elsewhere that may be poisoned or tainted by fatal substances, including fentanyl. 

A safe supply approach would make it possible for people to use drugs to have access to opioid agonist therapy (iOAT) as a treatment option, and would allow community organizations to operate flexible injectable hydromorphone programs. The Board of Health has also requested that the Ontario Minister of Health support safe supply by adding hydromorphone to the Ontario Drug Benefit Formula, in order to help safe supply and managed opioid programs operate. 

The report includes other recommendations, such as expanding access and distribution of naloxone, a life-saving treatment that can reverse overdoses, and more investment in harm reduction treatment and supports.  

From 2015 to 2018, the number of deaths due to opioid overdose in our city increased by 119%. Last year, 295 people lost their lives. These deaths are a tragic loss for our city and our communities, and in many cases, are preventable. 

In recent months, we have turned to our public health experts to guide us through the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve heeded their advice and followed their directives. Now, it’s time we did the same when it comes to protecting people who use drugs.