Opioid crisis will 'accelerate' as calls for strategy come late, says addictions expert

A report published by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit released Thursday revealed opioid-related overdose deaths shot up by almost 190 per cent over eight years to a level more than double the provincial average in 2015.

Recovering opioid addict calls crisis in the area 'sad' and 'scary'

Fentanyl pills are shown in an undated police handout photo. Another fentanyl arrest has two police forces and Alberta's health agency working together to raise awareness about the dangerous drug. A Calgary man has been charged after a joint investigation by the Canadian Border Services Agency, the RCMP and Calgary police. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams/The Canadian Press)

Windsor region health officials have a long battle ahead of them as they take on an opioid crisis that should have been tackled years ago, says addictions expert Dr. Tony Hammer.

A report published Thursday by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit revealed opioid-related overdose deaths shot up by almost 190 per cent over eight years to a level more than double the provincial average.

Forty-three opioid users in Windsor and Essex County died in 2015, which is the latest year for available data.

"I think we've probably been in crisis for a lot longer than we realize," said Hammer. "We should have done something some time ago."

The addictions expert at the Erie St. Clair Clinic said he's seen a "steady increase" in opioid addictions in recent years, but he expects the problem to accelerate because of Chinese fentanyl.

Dr. Tony Hammer. (CBC/Laurence Martin)

Hammer said traces of the highly addictive drug are already showing up in people who use cocaine or smoke pot.

"It's such a powerful, concentrated drug that is so easy to transport, process and so on, that we fear this will take over and be the dominate opioid on the market," he explained.

Mother lost her child during addiction

A twenty-three year old woman, who visits the clinic to receive methadone — an opioid medication, said there's "lots" of fentanyl powder on the streets in Windsor-Essex.

The woman said she became addicted to opioids when she was 18. After she became pregnant, the hospital suggested she seek methadone treatment, but a later relapse caused her son to be taken away by the Children's Aid Society.

Opioid recovery

5 years ago
Duration 3:14
This opioid addict knew she hit rock bottom when her child was taken away from her. 3:14

The woman's name is not being used to protect the identity of her child.

Getting her son back is now the woman's motivation to beat her addiction.

"I just had this brand new baby boy and he was so perfect and so handsome," she said. "Seeing somebody else caring for him and knowing I couldn't feed him and change his diapers, that was enough."

Overdose death rate 'scary'

When she was using, the woman got most of her opioids from people with legal prescriptions, who would sell excess pills. Opiod prices on the street are "ridiculous," she said, especially because there's no way to be sure what you're getting.

"You don't know the potency or the consistency," she said. "It scared me enough to know that I will never touch it again no matter how sick I am."

In the years she has battled her drug habit, the woman said she lost a friend from addiction support groups to an overdose, had a close call herself, and had to perform CPR to save her brother after he overdosed on heroin.

"It makes me sad," she said, calling the spike in overdose death rates "scary."

A heat map shows the density of opioid-related emergency department visits in Windsor and Leamington based on patient's postal codes (Windsor-Essex County Health Unit)

Both Hammer and the woman said enforcement should be a key part of any strategy to cut off the drug supply and combat the crisis.

"Basically there's no quick fix," said the doctor, adding that other communities are also struggling with opioids. "We may have to lead the way."