COVID-19, Drug Epidemic

New approaches must be taken to prevent the worsening opioid crisis in Ontario

By Kirsten Fee

Studies show that fatal opioid overdoses have increased by 60 per cent in Ontario since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ontario’s science table says factors that may be linked to the increase are pandemic related stress, social isolation, mental illness, travel and border restrictions creating unregulated drug supply and reduced accessibility of services for addiction, mental health and harm reduction.

The table calls for several strategies to be implemented to tackle the crisis. Some regions are offering alternative government regulated drugs to opioid addicts, while others believe drug problems should not be treated with more drugs.

Paula Tookey, the manager of consumption and treatment services at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto said, “If we are going to see the overdoses stop or go down, people have to have access to alternative substances that are consistent, quality controlled, regulated. People need to know what they are using,” in a phone interview on November 29.

Tookey has been working with substance abusers in Toronto for the past 30 years and said she has never seen the opioid situation as bad as it is right now.

“People have to have access to alternative substances that are consistent and quality controlled.”

Paula Tookey

Minority groups have also been disproportionately affected by opioid fatalities. Communities that have been hit the hardest include the homeless, the poor, and Black, Indigenous and people of colour.

Another proposed solution is to decriminalize all drugs to ensure regulated distribution, but Tookey says this will likely not benefit the minority groups that need it most. “As much as I support the decriminalization, it’s just going to benefit the privileged people who won’t have to worry about having their weekend cocaine celebrations.”

Vincent Lam, the medical director of the Coderix Medical Clinic, an addictions clinic in Toronto, is one of the many people that disagree with treating the fatal opioid crisis with government regulated opioids. He said there has been little evidence to show that safe supply methods reduce fatalities.

Instead, Lam vouches for opioid agonist therapy, which he said is supported by medical science. The therapy involves taking methadone or buprenorphine, medications that reduce withdrawal symptoms from opioids.

Despite multiple potential solutions to reduce the severity of the opioid problem, many people believe Ontario has not done enough to help and are calling for immediate action to save lives in a time of crisis.

By Ella Masciulli

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