The Current

'No one's listening': As opioid-related deaths surge in Canada, advocates say there's little gov't support

A new report released Wednesday shows opioid-related deaths in Ontario have increased by 76 per cent over the last year. It’s a trend that’s taking place across the country, but advocates say they have little faith it will inspire governments to take action to stem the tide.

Ontario, federal governments say they're committed to tackling opioid crisis

A man walks past a graffiti mural of a preacher with facts about the toxic drug crisis written beside his image.
A man walks past a mural by street artist Smokey D. about the fentanyl and opioid overdose crisis, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

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Zoe Dodd knows how painful it is to lose someone to the opioid crisis. In the past week and half alone, three people she knew died of an overdose. 

The Toronto-based harm reduction worker said she's been so traumatized by the opioid crisis this past year that she had to take three months off of work.

"The overwhelming nature of the grief and the just complete abandonment of people that have to respond to this crisis, as well as COVID and the housing disaster … really took a toll on me," said Dodd, who works with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society.

"There's no time to heal because then somebody else, you know, dies, and no one's listening to us. We're just, like, in these trenches screaming, yelling for many years now."

According to a new report released Wednesday, opioid-related deaths in Ontario have increased by 76 per cent over the last year. A total of 2,050 people died between mid-March and December of 2020, compared to 1,162 during the same period in 2019, the report found.

And it's a trend that's mirrored across the country. In B.C., 2020 was the worst year on record for the opioid crisis, as the province saw a 74 per cent jump in overdose deaths from the year before. In Manitoba, the surge in deadly overdoses was even worse — an 87 per cent increase from 2019 to 2020.

Toronto harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd says she has little faith that a new report on skyrocketing opioid deaths in Ontario will spark government action. (John Lesavage/CBC)

But despite the new report on the surging death toll in Ontario, Dodd and other advocates say they have little faith that governments will take action to stem the tide.

"We are in an emergency; we've been in it for a decade," Dodd told The Current's Matt Galloway. If things were going to change now, then "we wouldn't be throwing cups of water at the largest raging fire," she said.

Pandemic compounding opioid crisis

Garth Mullins, who used heroin for more than a decade and is now in a methadone program, said he's watched the opioid crisis worsen throughout his life, as the illicit drug supply has become more contaminated and drugs become more potent.

But COVID-19 has "really notched it up," said Mullins, who also hosts the podcast Crackdown.

"The pandemic has forced closures of some harm reduction places," he explained. "But also so have the politicians in some provinces, you know, either been openly hostile to harm reduction, like ... in Ontario and Alberta, or been really dragging their feet about it, like in British Columbia, where I am."

A spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said the province has "accelerated" its overdose response since the start of the pandemic, including making a 2021 budget commitment to spend $330 million over the next three years on substance use care and expanding B.C.'s prescribed safe drug supply.

The province has also made a request to the federal government to become the first province to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, a statement from the ministry said. Meanwhile, B.C. "is opening 17 new supervised consumption services and 12 new inhalation services in communities hardest hit by the overdose crisis," the statement added.

Garth Mullins says he's watched the opioid crisis get worse throughout his lifetime, and the pandemic has only compounded the issue. (Alexander B. Kim)

In a statement, an Ontario Ministry of Health spokesperson said the province is dedicated to addressing the problems surrounding opioid use, addiction and overdose, and has committed to investing more than $300 million in mental health and addictions supports during the pandemic.

"The government has taken a number of steps to support people who use opioids during COVID-19, including supporting Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS), the Ontario Naloxone Program and the Ontario Naloxone Program for Pharmacies and harm reduction programs," the statement said.

Feds haven't done enough, says Dodd

But Dodd argued hotel shelters set up to help people during the pandemic have separated drug users from services they need, as well as their communities and friends, leaving them feeling isolated.

According to the report on the opioid crisis in Ontario, 30 per cent of deaths that occurred in hotels, motels, or inns, were in those designated to provide shelter or COVID-19 isolation services.

Dodd blames the federal government for not doing enough to step in and address the opioid crisis in the provinces as well.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu's office told The Current that all levels of government need to strengthen their efforts to save lives, and that it's committed to helping respond to "regional needs."

"Our approach has focused on harm reduction, including supporting the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, funding programs to divert people who use drugs from the criminal justice system, and enhancing access to safe consumption sites, safer supply, and expanded treatment options," the minister's office said in a statement.

Thomas Kerr is a professor in the department of medicine at the University of British Columbia and senior scientist at the BC Centre on Substance Use. (BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS)

Thomas Kerr, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of British Columbia and senior scientist at the BC Centre on Substance Use, said the pandemic has demonstrated just how quickly people can mobilize to address a health crisis.

He just wishes that kind of bold action — including daily updates on death tolls and hospitalizations — would be applied to the opioid crisis, he said.

"But the problem is … we've criminalized drug use and people who use drugs for so long, we're having a very hard time shaking that," he said. 

"I think future generations will look down upon us for the lack of action taken during this time."

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and Joana Draghici.

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