CTV In-Depth: \u2018A City in Crisis\u2019 Part 2

After five deaths in one week by suspected drug overdoses, CTV Ottawa will bring you an in-depth look into Ottawa’s growing opioid crisis. Over three days we’ll look at the people struggling with drug addiction, the daily fight for survival and why some say a safe drug supply may be the only way to save lives.

It’s a picture of Canada’s capital no one wants to paint, in the shadow of Parliament Hill, a community struggling to survive.

“At the moment I do feel like we’re losing this battle,” says Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull. One of the city’s top doctors, he quit his job as Chief of Staff at the Ottawa Hospital to treat the city’s homeless addicted to opioids.

“There is more and more people coming, more continued deaths as a result of opioid overdoses.”

He works alongside Executive Director of Ottawa Inner City Health, Wendy Muckle. The pair considered heroes on the frontlines. The opioid crisis has been their life’s work.

“It rips the heart out of everybody who does this work,” says Muckle, “it’s one of the things we consciously work on is how to get up every day and keep going because it is painful and it takes you down at the knees. There’s always this worry when people phone you, like ‘who’s next?’, ‘who died?’”

In the midst of an opioid crisis, Muckle has changed the landscape of addiction support in the capital. The driving force behind supervised injection sites, now called Consumption and Treatment Sites; she spent years convincing municipal, provincial and federal governments to open their hearts and pocket books to the most vulnerable addicted homeless. Fighting for their rights, to have them seen as humans, and lives worth saving.

“For everybody who leaves and doesn’t need the help there are other people coming. It’s really hard to understand how we’re producing injection drug users so quickly in this city.”

It’s believed it’s the toxic drug supply blanketing the country. Fentanyl, a highly addictive opioid, is now being mixed into all types of street drugs. It has been found in heroin, cocaine, even marijuana. The drugs leave users more addicted than ever, craving more. The problem is an amount of fentanyl, equivalent to a grain of salt, can be deadly. It means those highly addicted users are now putting their lives at risk every time they inject, snort or smoke.

Ottawa Inner City Health’s Consumption and Treatment Site, previously called a Supervised Injection Site, also known as “the Trailer” at the Shepherds of Good Hope is where people can go, inject their drugs, while being monitored by nurses and support staff.

“People come and inject and then go to work,” Muckle says, “and come at the end of the day after work. It is really truly every facet of our society.”

If an overdose occurs, the team is there to administer naloxone, the medication used to reverse the overdose. Most times they are able to revive the user, sometimes though the drugs are just too potent.

“Six people per month in Ottawa die,” more than suicides or car accidents says Dr. Turnbull, “if this was drunk driving we would have everybody up in arms. We wouldn’t have any trouble finding people to talk about that.”

“Has it really hit home to a point that someone at dinner in Barrhaven is going to say ‘we gotta do something about this?’ No.”

The Trailer has been operating since November 2017, but Muckle had to reapply for licensing when the Ford Government took over in Ontario. The site, along with two others in Ottawa, were relicensed, a fourth, the city-run Clarence Street location is now slated to close.

The Trailer supervises up to 150 injections every day. On average, four of those injections result in overdoses that require some kind of reversing. If the overdose symptoms are caught early enough it may mean oxygen is sufficient, if symptoms are more severe then naloxone must be administered. Trailer staff says the toxicity of the drugs is so strong it’s more common to see four to nine dosages of naloxone needed to reverse the overdose.

While Muckle has fought hard to get and keep the Trailer and other supervised injection sites, she realizes it’s not the answer to the growing opioid crisis,

“It’s not getting us to where we need to go.”

“We need to fundamentally change the formula,” Muckle adds, “we are on our heels responding to the impacts of a deadly toxic supply and we have to change it.”

“To condemn somebody to go out and find money to illegally buy a toxic drug supply to be injected in front of us, to be resuscitated immediately, their life saved, then send them home or outside just to do it again,” says Dr. Turnbull, “that’s not the answer.”

What is the answer, or at least part of it, both Dr. Turnbull and Muckle agree, is a safe drug supply. What if the city’s most addicted and vulnerable could get their drugs legally, in their own home, no stealing or prostitution involved? It’s a program Ottawa Inner City Health is doing, the first of its kind in the world. A program, they say, is saving lives.

On Wednesday, watch for part three of our in-depth CTV series, ‘A city in Crisis’, when we look at the call for a safe drug supply in the midst of an opioid epidemic.