A record number of people have died from overdose in Ontario, but do politicians care enough to act?

Drug policies and stigma are fueling suffering and death. (Photo credit: Toronto Overdose Prevention Society)

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The answer to the headline’s question seems to be a resounding “no.” How else could one explain the catastrophic loss of life unfolding in Canada’s largest province. Nearly 1,500 people died in Ontario last year from accidental drug poisoning—a record number representing a two hundred per cent increase from a decade ago.

Behind each number was a human being—a friend or family member with aspirations and dreams in life cut short because of Canada’s fatally flawed drug policies. Prohibition is the root cause of this crisis, not the drugs people take.

And as communities continue to hemorrhage human lives, politicians with the power to enact life-saving change are failing to take the necessary steps that are proportional to the scale of this crisis: decriminalization and the legal regulation of drugs. It is considered too “politically risky” to embrace evidence-backed solutions people on the frontlines have been advocating since the beginning when those solutions run afoul of our outdated moral views on substance use.

And as people die, the federal government refuses to declare a national public health emergency for what Gillian Kolla, a harm reduction worker and public health researcher at the University of Toronto, called “the largest health crisis of our generation.”

A white tent behind a park sign
Temporary overdose prevention site in Toronto, Ontario; 2017

At this critical point in Canada’s history, where complacency is fueling death, it has largely been volunteer networks of community activists and people who use drugs who have shown the courage to do what is needed by setting up overdose prevention sites to save lives. Without this leadership and conviction the death toll would have been exponentially worse, yet this community is continually fighting for resources and support from a provincial government that shows tepid interest in evidence-backed solutions. Premier Doug Ford himself has publicly stated his opposition to supervised consumption sites.

In this hostile climate, exhausted by grief and the wretched routineness of hearing about yet another fatal overdose, the frontline harm reduction community continues to save lives. Who else is there to do the work when much of society and government have turned their back on you?

Government investment in harm reduction services and a commitment to peer-led initiatives have failed grow proportional to the dire need. Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada reveals a sharp increase in the presence of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues in Ontario’s drug supply; and at last check, almost 90% of fatal drug poisoning/overdose cases involved these substances.

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This is a direct result of our current drug policies that rely on prohibition and criminalization of people who use drugs—a system founded on racism and colonialism whose legacy continues to disproportionately affect people of colour and Indigenous communities today.

“The largest health crisis of our generation.”

~Gillian Kolla, University of Toronto

What is especially tragic is that the fatal overdoses most deeply affect those in the prime of their lives: Ontarians between the ages of 25 and 44. Across Canada, nearly 13,000 people have died from opioid-related causes in approximately three years. Last year, one person died every two hours, and for the first time in over four decades, life expectancy at birth has stopped rising because of overdose.

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This is a crisis unlike any Ontario has seen before. The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) public health emergency in 2003 killed 44 people, yet mobilized hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding and captured media headlines for weeks. It is clear that with respect to overdose and drug poisoning the lack of appropriate action is fueled by stigma and the biases society holds towards substance use and people who use drugs. History will remember unkindly the collective apathy of those who had the power to enact life-saving changes in this catastrophe yet didn’t. The current inaction is not about a lack of government resources, but rather a lack of will.

About Peter Kim

Director of Communications and Digital Engagement, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition