Canada’s other health crisis

Feb 25, 2021

A recent investigative report by Avery Haines published on the CTV News website has examined the ongoing health crisis associated with toxic drug supply, which has been fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the report, social distancing measures implemented across Canada to curb the spread of the coronavirus have been responsible for causing negative consequences for individuals struggling with addiction and mental illness. The increased isolation, loss of employment and income, and more difficulty in accessing support service due to social distancing rules have been associated with higher rates of illicit drug-related harms. In addition, closing of the Canada-U.S. border has disrupted the illegal drug supply, causing increases in a toxic, contaminated drug supply, due to drug dealers adding dangerous ingredients to stretch their supply.

A report released by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN) highlighted that in the first nine months of 2020, nearly 1,700 people died from illicit drug-related overdoses in Ontario, which corresponds to a 55% increase since 2019. “Only five years ago, we had only 700 opioid-related deaths [in Ontario], and we were astonished at that number,” said Dr. Tara Gomes, a scientist and principal investigator with ODPRN. Moreover, in Alberta, more people died from overdoses than from COVID-19 over the same time period.

Several advocacy groups across Canada have called on the government to create a safe supply of drugs, including the group Moms Stop The Harm. In her interview with CTV News, co-founder Leslie McBain, whose son had died from a drug overdose, said that radical action is needed to prevent illicit drug-related harms.

“In the early 1900s, the government prohibited the sale of alcohol. What happened? Toxic, toxic alcohol. It killed people, gangs rolled up. The government said ‘OK, this isn’t working, let’s regulate it and sell it legally.’ People still get addicted. People still died. But it’s a safe supply,” McBain said.

Another member of the Moms Stop The Harm group, Kathleen Radu, told CTV News that having access to “safe supply” could have saved her 26-year-old son Morgan. He had not used drugs for five months, and was living in a rehabilitation “recovery house” in Vancouver before the COVID-19 pandemic began. According to Ms. Radu, her son had established a healthy routine, was working out every day and felt excited about the future and was about to get a new job. However, due to social distancing measures, Morgan felt isolated and was unable to visit his family in Victoria. In a matter of several months, 12 of his friends had overdosed.

His mom says he was scared: “I remember the panic in his voice… He had just gotten into a routine.”

Later, Morgan died from an overdose after taking a small amount of heroin that was laced with fentanyl. “The coroner said that when Morgan took it, he probably passed away within about 30 seconds. It was that toxic,” said Ms. Radu.

Morgan’s stepfather, Roy Radu, a retired police officer, said that taking illicit drugs now is a deadly game of chance: “Before it was like Russian roulette with one bullet in the chamber. And now it’s like Russian roulette with the whole chamber loaded almost.”

A group of researchers at St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto led by Dr. Daniel Barrio have found that 30% of heroin samples they have tested are contaminated with fentanyl of varying and unpredictable concentrations. According to Dr. Barrio, the unpredictability of fentanyl concentrations poses serious risk of overdose, while his research team has found that fentanyl concentrations can vary from 5% to 80% of the heroin samples. “[A fentanyl concentration of] 5% is extremely potent for a seasoned user, and if we are talking about a concentration of 80% in a random sample that comes in, that’s dangerous for everyone,” said Dr. Barrio.

“Never before in the history of this country have more people died from drug overdoses,” the CTV investigative report concludes. “The ongoing opioid crisis is a health emergency that is being fuelled by the pandemic.”