Use COVID-19 knowledge to combat drug deaths, Ontario drug strategy group says

·4 min read

Members of the Drug Strategy Network of Ontario (DSNO) recently endorsed four policy solutions to reduce drug poisoning deaths and incidents in Ontario. DSNO says a coordinated emergency response is needed and suggests the public health and emergency strategies used to contain COVID-19 can be applied to the ongoing drug poisoning crisis.

The proposed solutions in the report, ‘Solutions to End the Drug Poisoning Crisis in Ontario: Choosing a New Direction,’ include declaring the province’s drug poisoning crisis to be an emergency under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA, RSO 1990) and creating a provincial taskforce to address the crisis; expanding evidence-informed harm reduction and treatment practices throughout Ontario; eliminating the structural stigma that discriminates against people who use drugs; and increasing investments in prevention and early intervention services that provide foundational support for the health, safety and well-being of individuals, families and neighbourhoods.

A recent study on Ontario showed that between February and December 2020, there was a 79 percent increase in the number of opioid-related deaths across Ontario, from 139 to 249. In the first half of 2021, rates of fatal drug poisonings more than doubled in 15 of 34 public health units across the province, with an increase in opioid-related deaths per 100,000 across all health units in Ontario from 7.9 to 14.

“We need to start pointing to places where there are very practical ways we can start to address what some would call the overdose crisis,” said Todd Barr, DSNO coordinator. “It is a poisoned drug supply so we’re thinking about policy solutions from that point of view.”

The network consists of 41 local communities that are working on local community meetings, drug strategy or drug strategy-like approaches to not only the overdose crisis but also harms associated with substance use. Manitoulin Community Drug Strategy is a DSNO member. “Those policy solutions are coming from folks across the province who came together to think about what are the things we want to touch on in terms of solutions,” Mr. Barr said. There was a consensus vote at a special meeting held in late April.

The first policy solution talks about the creation of a taskforce. “Maybe it doesn’t look like a taskforce. Maybe it looks like something else, but the idea is that there’s a place for folks to come together to talk about the drug poisoning crisis, both from the perspective of regional and provincial and even federal level, which is primarily public policy, but also the need for folks in communities to be able to create solutions that work for them,” he said. “Where are the intersections of what needs to happen more broadly in a public policy level and then what needs to happen that’s more unique to communities.”

The pandemic has highlighted the need for mental health, housing and income supports, he said. “It’s difficult for people to manage things like drug addiction and trauma and whatever it is that’s bringing them to the harms associated with substance use if they don’t have other key foundational supports and resources in place.”

It’s a very complex situation and there’s no silver bullet or blueprint to follow step by step. Members agreed the need is for people to come together and to continue working away at solutions and trying things and tracking progress together rather than follow a siloed approach. “Even if you think of how the government deals with housing shortages and the housing crisis, across the spectrum from homeless to owning your own home and everything in between, that’s one part of government, and mental health and addictions is a whole other part of government. There needs to be that coming together.”

Mr. Barr acknowledged that this is not a problem that government can solve by itself and that’s not what they’re asking. “That’s not what we’re saying at all. We need to be all working together, whether it’s folks with lived and living experience, social service providers, government or private sector employers—it’s all hands on deck.”

Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor

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