There is a drug crisis in Ottawa and across Canada, and a toxic street supply only makes it worse. The calls for change to policy continued in the capital on Overdose Awareness Day.
Patrick Tobin, whose street name is ‘Irish’, has a reminder of loss inked on his left arm: the name Lisa.
“I tattooed it on with a staple while I was in the pen,” Tobin says. “Two and a half years ago she died of an overdose. I was with her for 12 years. After she died, I really struggled with addiction.”
Tobin’s drug use spiralled out of control, landing him in jail, before turning to recovery.
“I’m 52 years old and I’ve been an addict since I was 16,” Tobin says. “People, places and things are my triggers but I avoid it by going out for a nice dinner, read a book or walk my dog and it seems to be working for me. I don’t think I’m totally out of the woods yet but it’s one day at a time and I’m starting to feel better about myself.”
Tobin’s story was one of many shared by community members who gathered at the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa to help lift the stigma of drug use on International Overdose Awareness Day.
“In August 2020, we lost our youngest son, Trevor, to an accidental drug poisoning,” mother Ruth Fox said. “He was living and working in Kincardine, he was working in the wind energy sector. He had a good job, he owned his house, he had friends in the community, it was right in the middle of COVID, he was going through a bit of a rough time and the next thing we knew he was gone. There are no words.”
Fox now supports Moms Stop the Harm, a national organization that provides peer support to grieving families, and advocates for the reform of drug policies.
“People who use drugs are not bad people,” Fox says. “We need to look at drug use differently because as long as there is prohibition, there’s going to be a toxic supply and people are going to keep dying and it’s people in all walks of life.”
In Canada, opioid drug use has spiked, along with deaths, in part due to street drugs, which can contain a lethal cocktail of substances like fentanyl and benzodiazepines.
Last year in Ottawa, 141 people died from overdose. In the first three months of 2023, 49 died due to an overdose. Health officials say that in July, hospitalizations for opioid-related overdose pushed to record levels.
“We need to make sure people understand is that if they are using opioids, if they are using powders from the unregulated market, they are at risk to make sure they are not using alone, that they have talked to someone about their substance abuse and they got somebody there who can respond in the event that they do overdose,” Rob Boyd, CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health, said.
“Most of the consumption sites here are now responding to more overdoses outside of the site then inside the sites and the majority of those we estimate, it’s about 75 to 80 per cent are suspected people who are inhaling the drugs or smoking the drugs.”
Currently, safe consumption sites cannot supervise inhalation or smoking. Boyd is calling on the provincial health unit to change its policy. He says the city also needs more safe consumption sites and overdose-saving naloxone, a safe supply of drugs, as well as an increase in supportive housing.
“This is no surprise to anybody; it’s not enough and it leads to more dangerous substance use on the streets when people don’t have housing,” Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, says. “There are many different complexities; we need to meet people where they are at and we need to work with communities that are most affected because as the problem changes the solutions will need to continue to evolve. We need to think broadly across the city because a certain amount of site will never meet the whole need. We need to really think about how we can help our family, our friend, our neighbours by being there when they are using substances.”
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