Street drug users fear overdoses, 'near-death experiences,' says report backing a safe supply program

A new report from the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council makes the case for a local safe drug supply program that advocates say would reduce overdose deaths along with social problems.

‘The unregulated drug markets are not going to become safer,’ says Waterloo, Ont., drug strategy specialist

What it's like to witness an overdose

3 years ago
Duration 1:16
Overdose deaths have been on the rise in Waterloo region, prompting some advocates to call for a safe supply of drugs. Dennis Leger explains what it's like to witness an overdose firsthand.

A new report from the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council makes the case for a local safe drug supply program that advocates say would reduce overdose deaths along with social problems. 

The report, titled "(Un) Safe," includes results from interviews with 43 people who regularly use street drugs and don't have stable housing. 

"They spoke about not wanting to live in fear of overdosing, not wanting to have to rescue friends and colleagues from near-death experiences through overdose," said Michael Parkinson, drug strategy specialist with the crime prevention council.  

Last year, it was suspected 98 people in the region died from opioid overdoses — the highest number since officials started keeping track in 2017.

"We know that the unregulated drug markets are not going to become safer, and it appears that in 2021, the number of people dying is not going to significantly go down," said Parkinson.

A safe supply initiative would offer people safe, pharmaceutical-grade drugs equivalent to what they're now getting through the unregulated drug market. These street drugs can often be unexpectedly powerful or toxic, leading to overdose poisoning, said Parkinson. 

In the last year, health officials issued multiple overdose alerts about unexpectedly strong drugs circulating in the community.

All of the "(Un) Safe" respondents said they witnessed an overdose before the pandemic began, the report said. In the first few months after COVID-19 was declared a provincial emergency, 88 per cent said they'd seen an overdose emergency and 33 per cent said they'd overdosed themselves at least once.

CBC News spoke to two people at Kitchener's Better Tent City, a community for people facing homelessness, for their thoughts on a safe supply program. 

Holly Windsor, who lives in Kitchener and uses fentanyl, supports the idea. She's overdosed herself and has seen others do the same.

"I've administered probably five or six people with Narcan [a drug that counters fentanyl overdose], called 911, waited for the ambulance, did CPR," said Windsor.

"Nobody's died on my watch, thank God, but it's scary. It's scary."

Dennis Leger said living with addiction and withdrawal is incredibly distracting, and forces some people to turn to stealing. 

If you don't have your drugs, you get sick. It's like the flu, but worse.​- Dennis Leger

"If you don't have your drugs, you get sick. It's like the flu, but worse," said Leger, who is part of a methadone program is not currently using other drugs.

"It takes precedence over everything in life, because you gotta worry about where you're going to get your next fix." 

In the fall, Leger moved to Kitchener from British Columbia, where he became familiar with safe supply programs. He says a local version would be a good idea.

"It would slow down the ODs a lot … because you're using in a safe place, and it's safe narcotics or whatever they give you, it's clean.

"I think it would save money in the long run for the government," because less money would be spent on ambulances and other health-care services, said Leger.

Comparing costs of custody, safe supply

Parkinson also believes a safe supply program would help solve problems such as theft or being an unwilling participant of the sex trade. He cited early results from a safe supply program in London, Ont., that showed a decrease in crime and homelessness among participants.  

"All of a sudden, people are not having to spend 10, 12, 20 hours a day hustling to have the money to buy unregulated drugs," said Parkinson.

"They have a ton more time available on their hands, and that's time that can be spent engaging with health services, social services, with the labour market, and so on and so forth."

Holly Windsor, who lives in Kitchener, Ont., and uses fentanyl, supports the idea of a safe supply program, saying she's witnessed a number of overdoses. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Parkinson said that according to Statistics Canada, it costs roughly $100,000 a year to keep adults in federal custody; providing someone with a safe supply of drugs would total about $6,000 to $7,000 annually. 

While he believes it's also important to invest in programs that prevent harmful substance use, he said more immediate action is needed.

"When someone is in the emergency room, when someone is living in an encampment because there is no viable alternative. Well, what do you do?.

"We don't start talking about prevention. We start talking about crisis intervention, and safe supply is one of those crisis interventions."

Health Canada application

The "(Un)Safe" report goes before the region's committee of the whole Tuesday for information only.

Kitchener's Inner-City Health Alliance, with help from the crime prevention council, has applied to Health Canada to fund a small safe supply initiative.

CBC News reached out to Health Canada to ask when a response is expected, but did not hear back by publication time. 

Sarah Marsh, a Kitchener Ward 10 councillor, told CBC News she hopes the government agency will green-light the program. 

"Safe supply, it costs very little to the health-care system, but it would save a lot of money in our crime response," said Marsh, who presented a motion to Kitchener council last fall calling on higher levels of government to fund a safe supply program. The motion was passed unanimously. 

"It's not the end all be all, but it's definitely something we should add to our toolbox."