Hundreds of Quebec coroner's reports show overdose crisis defies expectations

Trying to get a handle on what’s really behind the surging numbers of overdose deaths, a group of Montreal researchers found that it’s not exactly what they expected.

A team from the Université de Montreal studied 340 Quebec coroner’s reports from 2017 where overdose was the cause of death.

What they found was that the “overdose crisis” is more complicated than how it’s often described—it’s not just opioids or new drugs hitting the black market.

Cocaine, alcohol or meth were involved in the majority of cases, the researchers say.

“The overdose crisis is not just one substance or one family of substances,” said André-Anne Parent, a U de M researcher. 

“It's not only opiodes but a mix of different type of drugs.”

For the male victims, however, 23 per cent of the deaths involved at least one opioid substance, while for women it was 19 per cent.

But perhaps the most surprising stat the researchers found was the ages of those who died: 46 for men and 50 for women.

Half were found by a friend or family member, which confirms what people in the field already know.

“We know for a fact that most people who intervene during an overdose are peers,” said Jean-Francois Mary of CACTUS Montreal. 

The organization, which works with people with drug addictions, says that aspect of the pattern—who finds overdose victims—is starting to change, however.

“The fact that more and more people are isolated... is bringing up the deaths in Canada in general,” said Mary.

In Montreal, deaths from overdoses are on the rise this year. Mary and his colleagues at CACTUS aren’t the only ones worried about the growing impact of the pandemic—the spinoff effects are noticeable, starting with people using drugs more.

“We've had some clients that have called back, they've lost their job, they have more anxiety, depression,” said Seychelles Harding, a spokesperson for Portage, an addiction treatment centre with offices in Montreal’s southwest.

Public Health also says that since the pandemic began, it’s seeingmore dangerous substances like fentanyl and counterfeit pills on the market.

Adding to the problem, CACTUS says some people are afraid to call 911 during an overdose as they’re afraid police may show up. 

That makes it all the more important for regular people to learn how to help if they see someone overdosing, said Mary.

“If people around know how to intervene in an overdose, not just opioids but in general—doing CPR, breathing, compression an so on—that saves lives,” he said.

“And if it's an opioid overdose, having naloxone on them saves lives.”

Those in the field hope that research will keep up with reality, helping catch trends and ultimately helping head off a growing crisis.

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