Overdose epidemic is a crisis, it’s killing Torontonians and deserves a proportionate response: Cressy
Almost 100 people overdosed in our city in the past week, and at least six have died. The loss is staggering because these are not numbers — they are people.
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Consider this number: 258.
That’s how many people died due to overdose in Toronto in 2015, the most recent year for which we have complete data. It’s an overwhelming number — and one I think about every day. Every week more Torontonians are dying and the painful fact is these deaths are preventable.
For 10 years this crisis has been growing. Since 2004 there has been a 73 per cent increase in deaths due to overdose. In recent weeks the crisis has taken an alarming turn — almost 100 people overdosed in our city in the past week, and at least six have died.
The loss is staggering because these are not numbers — they are people. And overwhelmingly, they are young people, who are mourned by those they leave behind: our neighbours, our colleagues, our friends. We now lose more young Ontarians to overdose than to traffic accidents, and it's got to stop.
Drug use is complex. People use drugs for all sorts of reasons, including trauma, depression, self-medication, and recreation. The solution, therefore, is also complex. Tackling this crisis requires treatment, prevention, harm reduction and the support of enforcement; a public health approach, rather than a criminal justice one.
Ten years ago, this conversation was different. Ten years ago, the stigma of drug use overwhelmed the conversation. The federal government of the day and many others prescribed a “tough love” approach, as if letting people die was some kind of lesson. These same critics told us to arrest our way to a solution, as if substance use and overdose could be solved by the prison system. These flawed views and policies simply did not work. They caused more harm.
Today, the stigma has by no means gone away — sadly stigma still kills — but the discourse has changed. For the first time ever all three levels of government agree that treating substance use as a public health issue is the right approach. We agree on the solutions, the challenge is in the speed and scale of their implementation.
In Toronto, we tried to respond proactively. In 2011, Toronto Public Health became the first health unit in the country to distribute naloxone, a life-saving antidote for opioid overdose. Through our Toronto Drug Strategy, adopted 11 years ago, we established an overdose co-ordinating committee and initiated a number of measures.
In partnership with harm reduction agencies, we developed prevention tools like the website www.reportbaddrugsTO.ca to provide a forum for people who use drugs to share information about negative drug reactions. We implemented harm reduction training programs within the broader community and supported opioid substitution treatment programs. Perhaps the most recognizable measure was the long fought for decision to open three supervised injection services.
In the last year, as the crisis continued, we worked with people who use drugs and front line experts to develop the Toronto Overdose Action Plan. Endorsed by the Board of Health in March, the 49-point plan calls for expanding the free distribution of naloxone, approving the use of diacetylmorphine (pharmaceutical heroin) as another form of opioid treatment, working with hospital testing labs to develop a drug-testing program, and publishing real-time overdose data.
While I believe our city has taken important and proactive steps to stem the tide, and am immensely proud of the response of our committed and talented city staff, the truth is more needs to be done.
Now. This is a crisis, it’s an emergency, call it whatever you want, it’s killing Torontonians and deserves a proportionate response.
We need to open our supervised injection services right away. Naloxone should be distributed throughout the community, and carried by police and first responders. We need to better fund and support front line community organizations who work daily to keep people alive. We need drug testing programs opened. Simply put, we need to do more.
That’s not to say that the city can do it all on its own. Our federal and provincial counterparts need to scale up their own response. Frankly, it should have been scaled up yesterday. But, as the chair of Toronto’s Drug Strategy I’ll be the first to admit we’re not doing enough.
This crisis is hard. People are dying and they don’t have to. Every day lost is a potential life lost. We must do everything we can to stop it.
Joe Cressy is the city councillor for Ward 20 and the chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Panel.