By Pauline Kerr

While alcohol continues to cause more harm than any other drug in the area, the opioid* crisis is here, and municipal leaders are in a unique position to help deal with it. This was the message delivered by Lynda Bumstead of the Grey Bruce Health Unit and Dave Roy of Hope Grey Bruce to members of Huron-Kinloss Township council last Monday.

Their presentation was entitled Opioid Crisis: A Call to Action.

The opioid crisis that has swept across Canada has not missed Grey Bruce, the two told council. Using 2014 numbers, they reported that one in 12 people in Ontario dies from opioid-related causes. One in 170 deaths in Ontario are now related to opioids. Disturbing as these numbers are, they’re even worse for young people – one in eight deaths of young adults (ages 25-34) are opioid-related.

In 2014, opioids claimed more lives than motor vehicle collisions in this province, Bumstead said – 673 compared to 481.

“Grey Bruce is not the highest, but we certainly do have a problem,” she said.

In Grey Bruce, opioid-related emergency department visits have tripled over the past 14 years; between 2010 and 2014, Grey Bruce had nine deaths related to acute fentanyl (a powerful synthetic painkiller) toxicity.

Bumstead explained to council an opioid is a morphine-like drug that is prescribed to relieve pain. “And it does a good job,” she said, adding the drug relieves psychological as well as physical pain.

It also produces a euphoria, making it prone to abuse. What makes it so deadly is it acts as a depressant, slowing down breathing.

The opioids that are most abused are prescription drugs.

Roy told council that he’s been told by many people that their first experience with opioids was drugs they found in the medicine cabinet.

The question of how the crisis began is a complex one, but Bumstead drew attention to the fact the number of opioid-related deaths started rising when oxycontin began to be prescribed in high doses. At the same time, there was no accompanying increase in addiction and mental health resources to deal with it.

“The problem is complex and it’s worsening,” she said. “It affects families, friends and communities as a whole. Reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use is going to take a collaborative, community response.”

And that’s where municipal councils come in.

Roy told council about what’s happening now in Grey Bruce. The group formed to deal with crystal meth grew to include the drug and alcohol strategy, and the committee partnered with the health unit to form the opiate strategy working group. In addition to advocating for harm reduction programs (naloxone** distribution, needle exchange sites), Grey Bruce is fortunate to have a withdrawal centre in Owen Sound. The centre includes rapid action treatment.

It’s still not enough. Traditionally, people have entered hospital in crisis and leave without an action plan in place, he said.

That’s why the opioid working group has been approaching municipal councils – to increase awareness of what the problem is, and what needs to be done. Roy told council the stigma and shame attached to drug abuse is standing in the way of dealing with it effectively. It’s not an impersonal “they” who have problems, it’s friends and family.

“You, as lower tier representatives, can have the conversation about opioid awareness as a health care, not moral, issue.”

He explained the stigma is part of the reason addiction services are woefully underfunded. “There’s not a lot of services,” he said.

Currently there are 13 full-time counsellors and three part-time counsellors to offer addiction services for all of Grey Bruce; there are only three full-time counsellors and one part-time counsellor to offer services to youth in Grey Bruce. Roy said it’s difficult to avoid waiting lists, and it’s impossible to cover all areas in a rural environment, especially in a smaller centre like Ripley. Transportation issues serve as a barrier.

The focus is getting people “to the table” who need to be there, including family physicians and dentists, Roy said.

Bumstead spoke on how municipal leaders can work at developing a community response. There are sharps disposal sites in Walkerton and Kincardine – this could be expanded.

Roy urged council members to talk to people about emptying out their medicine cabinets, especially in homes where someone has died from cancer, leaving large amounts of painkillers.

The two concluded their presentation with an update on the legalization of cannabis.

Bumstead told council the health unit is recommending the legal age for cannabis (marijuana) not be, less than 25. “Research is showing the brain is still developing between the ages of 18 and 25,” she said, adding the government of this province appears to be going with 19 as the legal age.

As for driving, both she and Roy pointed out there’s no real test for cannabis, and more research is needed, along with a strong educational component.

For Roy, the bottom line is “criminalization of cannabis hasn’t worked.” He suggested there should probably have been a slower move from criminalizing to full legalization. And he reminded everyone that “more harm is done by alcohol than all the other drugs combined…we have a monstrous problem with alcohol, more than the rest of the province.”

When asked by Coun. Jim Hanna about what Bumstead and Roy “want to see,” the response was naloxone, needle exchanges, and “having people (in the community) part of the conversation – this is a health issue.”