‘A human tragedy:’ Opioid toxicity deaths in Toronto top 500 in 2023

Toronto Public Health is releasing tragic data as officials warn opioid toxicity is at an all-time high. Michelle Mackey has their calls to action.

More than 500 people died of opioid toxicity in the City of Toronto in 2023 with public health officials pointing to an unregulated drug supply as the primary cause for this “human tragedy.”

Latest figures released by Toronto Public Health (TPH) on Wednesday show the drug crisis has intensified since the pandemic with 523 opioid toxicity-related deaths in 2023, a 74 per cent increase from the 301 deaths reported in 2019. The data revealed that of the 427 deaths deemed accidental, nearly half were in people between the ages of 25 and 44 and more than half resided in a private dwelling.

“The continued loss of life to the ongoing drug toxicity epidemic is devastating and has left a profound and painful impact on so many of us in our community,” said Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa.

“This is more than a public health issue – it’s a human tragedy that demands we respond with empathy, care and compassion.”

TPH officials say overdoses and deaths due to drug toxicity are preventable and they continue to call for greater access to a full continuum of evidence-based health-care services, including supervised consumption services where people can use their own drugs in the presence of trained health professionals.

“The increased risks of the toxic unregulated drug supply, coupled with the housing and affordability crisis, pose a serious threat to community health and wellbeing. Treatment is vital. We need the support and participation of all three levels of government to significantly reduce the devastating impact of the drug toxicity epidemic in Toronto and across Ontario,” said Mayor Olivia Chow.

Recently the federal government rejected Toronto’s request to decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Ya’ara Saks said Toronto Public Health’s request did not adequately protect public health and maintain public safety while also citing a lack of support from the Ford government, which had vehemently opposed the idea.

Premier Doug Ford went one step further in a letter to the prime minister calling for a review of Health Canada-approved sites across the country, asking for provincial say in ‘safe supply’ sites which are approved by Health Canada.”

The Ford government also clashed with Ontario’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, who called on the province to decriminalize simple possession of unregulated drugs for personal use in his annual report earlier this year.

“I think there is a better way than legalizing drugs, and opioids in particular,” said Minister of Health Sylvia Jones.

Toronto Public Health officials defended the city’s 10 supervised consumption sites, noting they “save lives, connect people to social services and are proven pathways to treatment.” Officials say they are open to exploring “collaborative solutions” with other government agencies when it comes to this public health issue.

“Increasing funding and access to a wide array of treatment options, including opening a 24/7 stabilization crisis centre, is essential to tackling the drug toxicity epidemic. The coordinated efforts of municipal, provincial and federal governments are critical to addressing the crisis impacting not only Toronto but Canadians right across the country,” said Toronto Board of Health chair Chris Moise.

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