Toronto approves overdose action plan as deaths continue to mount
City to publish more data about overdoses, hopes to allow drug users to test what they buy
For Olympia Trypis, the recommendations in the city's new overdose action plan can't be in place soon enough.
The 21-year-old drug user broke down as she spoke to the Toronto health board Monday about the death of her former roommate and friend, Brooklyn McNeil, who died last summer just weeks after advocating for supervised injection sites in this city.
McNeil died alone after overdosing near a dumpster, Trypis said through tears.
"There's nothing OK about what happened to her."
The city's seen a 73 per cent increase in overdose deaths between 2004 and 2015, with many of those being linked to powerful opioids like fentanyl. In 2015, 135 opioid users died after overdosing, a figure Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the acting medical officer of health, said was "far too many."
Yaffe warned that if the city doesn't act quickly it could wind up dealing with a surge of deaths, similar to what has happened in Vancouver.
The new report contains more than 25 recommendations the city will be trying to swiftly implement, including:
- Expanding the free distribution of naloxone, a fast-acting antidote for those who have overdosed on opioids
- Establishing three supervised injection sites as soon as the federal government gives clearance and the province provides funding
- Getting approval to use diacetylmorphine – so-called "medical heroin" – to treat opioid users not responding to treatments like methadone
- Working with hospital testing labs to develop a program that will allow users to test the drugs they're buying
- Publishing real-time overdose data online
Coun. Joe Cressy said sharing details about the overdose crisis will allow the public to better understand the issue.
"They're dying in the shadows," he said, following the meeting.
"When we take drug use out of the shadows and into the public light we treat it like any other health issue."
'It needs to happen right now,' user says of drug-testing plan
Trypis and several other outreach workers welcomed the city's approach, which has sought the opinion of drug users.
Still, Trypis said she wants to see a timeline as to when the supervised injection sites will open, and called on the city to work quickly to develop the capability to test if drugs are tainted.
"It needs to happen right now," she said, adding she's scared every time she's using that someone has laced the drugs with something else.
Karen Shaw from the Parkdale Community Health Centre said the city's plan will make a big difference on the street.
"It helps addicts out there to know that their lives are valuable to other people, too," she said.
Shaw said she hopes the city finds a way to have police no longer respond to overdose calls, because the threat of being arrested scares many drug users.
Councillor resigns ahead of vote
The city will also be working with the Indigenous community to try to find specific responses for that community.
Shortly before the vote, Coun. Christin Carmichael Greb resigned from the health board, threatening its ability to vote on the motion. The board did manage to maintain quorum and voted unanimously in favour of the report.
Carmichael Greb's office issued a statement Tuesday saying she resigned from the health board because of her commitments on several other city boards, not because she opposed the action plan. A spokesperson from her office said she planned to attend the entire meeting, but had to leave for a prior commitment when the debate went longer than expected.
"My motive was to spend the time needed to support the residents of my ward," Carmichael Greb said in a statement.
The health board's decision doesn't need the approval of the full city council.
The board also passed a motion from Coun. Joe Mihevc to ask the provincial health ministry for about $375,000 to hire three people to help with implementing the plan.
Before the vote, Matt Johnson, a harm reduction outreach worker with the Queen West Central Toronto Community Health Centre, praised the city's actions and pleaded with them to approve the plan.
"I'm getting really sick of seeing my friends die," he said.