Thunder Bay

Overdose deaths 'completely unnecessary': Thunder Bay safe injection site supervisor

New drug policies — including legalization — and the removal of stigma associated with drug use are the keys to preventing drug overdose deaths in Thunder Bay, and across Canada, the supervisor of consumption and treatment services with NorWest Community Health Centres said Monday.

Monday marked International Overdose Awareness Day

NorWest Community Health Centres marked this year's International Overdose Awareness Day with an event that included displaying 25 balloons with placards, each one representing someone who died of an overdose in Thunder Bay in 2019. (Amanda Bay/Firedog Communications)

New drug policies — including legalization — and the removal of stigma associated with drug use are the keys to preventing drug overdose deaths in Thunder Bay, and across Canada, the supervisor of consumption and treatment services with NorWest Community Health Centres said Monday.

"This is something that's completely unnecessary," Brad King said of overdose deaths. "No family should ever have to go through this."

"It's because of our drug policies, and the stigma associated with drug use, that people aren't getting help, and there's poison drugs on our streets."

King was speaking Monday, which was International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD).

In a media release, the City of Thunder Bay's Drug Strategy noted that 142 people in the city have died due to opioid poisoning in the last five years, with 35 of those deaths occurring in 2019.

Part of NorWest's IOAD event on Monday included displaying 35 balloons with placards at its Simpson Street location, representing those who died in 2019.

"Every one of those 35 that passed away in 2019, that's 35 families that are feeling that same pain," King told CBC News. "It's an epidemic."

Also, during IOAD, 107 other balloons were displayed at NorWest, representing those who died between 2016 and 2018, while Thunder Bay City Hall's fountain was lit up in purple, the colour used to mark IOAD around the world.

Safe supply needed

Nationally, there were more than 15,300 apparent opioid overdose deaths between January 2016 and December 2019, the city said.

"Decriminalization is great, but we need legalization and regulation," King said. "There needs to be a safe supply of drugs."

"We have a safe supply of alcohol through the LCBO," he said. "It hasn't solved alcoholism, but people aren't being poisoned by the alcohol that they're drinking. We need to have [that] safe supply and programs available for people that save lives."

Without a policy change, and with a continued punitive approach to drug use, King said, "our drug supply is in the hands of criminals … who do not care."

"Absolutely anything could be in street drugs that people are getting," he said. "One small mistake, and that's another number added to the list."

King encouraged everyone to carry naloxone, which can be used to reverse an opioid overdose, in the event they see one happening.

And while the city highlighted several locally available services in its own release — including NorWest's supervised injection site, outreach harm reduction services, the Rapid Access to Addiction Medicine Clinic and withdrawal management services — it also noted that those services are all in need of expansion.

"While we have intervention services and long-term prevention initiatives in place, we need greater resources to do more as our community continues to struggle with the opioid crisis," Thunder Bay Drug Strategy Coordinator Cynthia Olsen said in a statement.

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