Nearly a hundred silhouettes and a sombre row of shoes lined a room at Reseau Access Network Tuesday to speak for the people who couldn’t be there —all of them local victims of fatal overdoses.
Lisa Toner, community outreach coordinator with the network, said it’s hard to get a precise figure for opioid fatalities in Sudbury, as it is only in the past year or so that the link has been made explicit in medical reports, but her organization estimates “there have been 90 to 100 deaths associated with opioid use in the last three years.”
Nationwide, the figure tops 10,000 since 2016.
“It’s one of the largest public health crises in decades,” said Toner. “And the response hasn’t matched it. We need to get real about what’s happening here.”
One way to do that is to create a supervised space where people who use drugs are not judged and can be assured the product they are injecting or inhaling is not laced with lethal ingredients.
“Every member of our community deserves a space where they can feel a sense of belonging and safety, regardless of any challenges they may be facing,”the network said regarding Tuesday’s event, which simulated the kind of environment organizers would like to see put in place.
“This is what we came up with in terms of a potential safe space for people who use drugs in Sudbury,” said Toner. “Or another way of putting it is a mock consumption and treatment service.”
Nobody was using drugs at the demonstration site, set up in corner of the Reseau Access Network location on Larch Street, nor would this be possible until approvals are granted through the province and Health Canada.
In the meantime, though, “we have created what we believe a safe space could look like, in hopes of trying to demystify it a little bit for community members, as well as get feedback from people who might use the space,”said Toner. “To say, is this comfortable for you? Is this a welcoming space?”
The exercise coincided with a National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis, observed in communities across Canada.
“This is the first year that Sudbury is involved in this day of action,”said Toner. “And we decided to base it around a safe space and make that the theme of our day, because we don’t have that for people who use drugs in Sudbury.”
The city’s Community Drug Strategy, collaboratively launched by the health unit and police, is currently looking into the potential for a safe usage site, with a needs assessment and feasibility study expected to get under way next month, but it will be a year or more before that study is complete.
“This is about what can we do before then,”said Toner. “Can we advocate on behalf of people who use drugs in our community to have something in the meantime, as community members are continuing to die of fatal opioid overdoses with regularity?”
Terry Jenkins of Sudbury has experienced this kind of tragedy in the most personal of ways.
“I lost my 21-year-old son Matthew to a heroin overdose almost two years ago,”she said.
Her son got into using rave drugs like MDMA (ecstasy) around the age of 14 and “over time he just kind of graduated into harder drugs,”she said. “But the night he overdosed was his first time using a needle.”
Matthew was partying at home in Toronto when the OD occurred, she said, along with one friend. “He wasn’t using alone, but the friend passed out and he continued to use.”
Earlier her son had “also been snorting valium, which suppresses the breathing system,”she said. “They were able to revive him but he never regained consciousness.”
He was kept on life support for a week and a half before being declared brain dead.
Jenkins wishes her son had used a safe consumption site in Toronto, or had a friend on hand who could have administered an overdose-reversal drug.
“When the friend woke up he started doing CPR, but he didn’t have naloxone,”she said.
While the heroin Matthew injected wasn’t tainted with fentanyl or carfentanil (an especially potent synthetic drug), increasingly both of these can be found in street drugs such as purple heroin, or ‘purp,’and that makes a safe usage space all the more important, Jenkins said.
“One of the biggest things about the consumption sites is the ability to test right then and there,”she said. “The person knows what they’re getting. It’s so important because we’ve lost so many I believe accidentally, because they think they’re getting one thing and it turns out it’s laced with other stuff that’s going to kill them.”
James Gough, a former IV drug user who has been clean for six years, agreed the deaths are rarely deliberate suicides.
“I don’t think any addict wants to die,”he said. “I think they just want to stop the pain. It’s not that you’re picking up a fentanyl-laced drug saying ‘I can’t take it anymore.’”
People may know the drug contains potentially deadly substances, he said, but are still willing to roll the dice, just because they crave relief so much.
“If you are in withdrawal from opiates, it’s what you have to do to feel normal and stop the withdrawal,”he said, speaking from first-hand experience. “Opiate withdrawal is that bad —it really is a nightmare.”
Gough said he’s lost many friends in recent years to overdoses —a third of the hundred people he interviewed for a housing study in 2008 are no longer alive —but the deaths have impacted many other friends and loved ones.
“It’s like a ripple in a pond,”he said. “You see 96 outlines of people’s heads we’ve put up here, but you don’t see their families and all those affected. The amount of grief and loss that’s currently happening in every community across Canada is so huge it seems like Mount Everest, but all those deaths are preventable.”