Drugs surpass car crashes as city's No. 1 killer, health unit suspects

London's medical officer of health is talking to city police about London's opioid crisis on Thursday, and Londoners will have their say next month.

Londoners will weigh in on supervised injection services as more people between 15 and 50 are dying from drugs

This is an example of the type of drug injection kit that would be used by drug users at a supervised injection site. Londoners will get to weigh in on the facilities in November. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

London's top health official says the city's drug crisis is growing.

Car crashes used to be the number one killer of those between ages 15 and 50, but that's changed, suspects Chris Mackie, medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit. 

There's no requirement for overdose deaths to be reported to public health officials, so there are no firm numbers. 

However, based on anecdotal evidence, more people between 15 and 50 are dying from drugs than ever before, Mackie said. 

"It's probably the number one killer, if you add up drug overdose deaths, (blood infection deaths), HIV and Hepatitis C deaths," he said.

"London has multiple, overlapping drug related problems and they require a range of response, so it's not that there's a silver bullet."

Prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction all have to play a role, said Mackie. 

Supervised injection services

Londoners will finally have their say on supervised injection services for the city's drug users next month. 

Middlesex-London Health Unit officials originally wanted public consultations in September and October, with a report prepared by the end of November. 

That timeline has been pushed back with public consultations beginning in early November, said Mackie. 

The health unit hired local consultant Maria Sanchez-Keane, who runs the Centre for Organizational Effectiveness, to lead the public input sessions and write the final report.

"She's done excellent work with public consultation. We're really happy that's who has been hired," said Mackie.

Sanchez-Keane consulted with London's street-level sex workers and reported about their needs to city and health officials, prompting the London Street Level Women at Risk housing program.

Growing drug problem

London's HIV and Hepatitis C rates are growing faster than anywhere else in Ontario, as are the city's rates for two other types of injection-related infections.

Last summer, the health unit declared injection drug use as a public health emergency. The city hands out 2.5 million needles to drug users every year, a number second only to Vancouver when it comes to publicly-funded needle use. 

The city has already done a supervised injection feasibility study, speaking to injection drug users who said they would welcome supervised facilities where they can use drugs. 

Terminology change

The health unit's public consultations will include at least four town hall style meetings in different parts of the city, including downtown and east London, where most injection drug users have said they frequent. 

The consultations will also include an online survey and up to 10 focus groups with businesses, residents, local agencies and people who use drugs. 

The health unit has started referring to supervised injection services as 'supervised consumption facilities,' because drugs taken there could be injected, smoked, snorted, or otherwise ingested. The health unit is also considering the possibility of making the sites mobile, moving from place to place as demand dictates. 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.