Decade in review: Grassroots activists take the opioid crisis into their own hands

The overdose emergency stalls life expectancy in Canada for the first time in four decades



The country plunged into the worst public health emergency in years as thousands overdosed and died after consuming tainted opioids. In fact, so many people fatally overdosed between 2016 and 2017 that life expectancy for Canadians has stalled for the first time in four decades.

Despite a dramatic increase in the death rate in Ontario – 1,261 people in 2017, up roughly 45 per cent over 2016 – the provincial government was slow to heed activist calls to fund supervised safe-injection sites. So a group of harm-reduction workers took action and opened an unsanctioned site in a tent in Moss Park in August 2017. They moved into a trailer during the winter months and operated with help from more than 150 volunteers, but it would still take over a year before the city’s first sanctioned site opened. (There are now 20 legal sites province-wide.)

The activists spent 11 months in Moss Park, monitoring 9,000 injections, responding to 251 overdoses, according to the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society. Life-saving naloxone kits are now available for free at parties and kept on hand in bars and clubs.

And still, 1,475 died in Ontario in 2018. With the majority of deaths attributed to a drug supply increasingly tainted with fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, activists are calling for legalization so doctors can prescribe a safe supply. It’s time for the government to wake up, listen to front-line activists and workers and end this senseless crisis. 

@nowtoronto

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