The grim number of opioid overdoses and deaths has been growing steadily for years. The pandemic may have just taken everything to a whole new level.
A recent report by Public Health Ontario showed that 695 people in Ontario died of a confirmed or suspected opioid-related death in the first 15 weeks of the pandemic alone — a 38 per cent increase compared to 15 weeks before the pandemic.
Researchers estimate that numbers will show more than 2,200 opioid-related deaths in 2020, if the weekly rate continues for the rest of the year. This would be the highest ever in Ontario, rising from 1,512 in 2019.
“I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and I’ve never seen numbers like this,” said Jennifer Adams, a registered nurse and harm reduction co-ordinator for the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit.
There were 165 drug overdoses in 2020, with over 80 per cent opioid-related: an increase of 55 cases over 2019 in Leeds, Grenville and Lanark. Fourteen suspected opioid-related deaths occurred last year, up from four deaths in 2019, according to Adams.
Asked if the pandemic resulted in the increase in overdoses and deaths, Adams said that “it makes you wonder. We can’t scientifically correlate it, but it certainly raises a lot of questions.”
“People are isolated, losing jobs and income, giving them severe anxiety” during the current pandemic, said Dr. Mark Ware, the chief medical officer at Canopy Growth Corporation, a cannabis products producer in Smiths Falls. “Marginalized people are suffering and struggling.”
Ware contends that the opioid crisis has numbers so horrendous that we can no longer ignore it. “It’s not getting the same level of attention. This is a public health crisis,” he said.
Illicit drug supplies, barriers to harm reduction treatment, and physical distancing requirements that lead to more people using drugs alone — these are some of the reasons for the increase in overdoses cited by the report.
Can cannabis help curb the crisis?
“If a person is about to abuse opioids and can use cannabis as a way to prevent that, we could save lives. We could reduce the harm,” Ware said.
Patients with chronic pain and substance abuse disorders were the first ones to report the benefits of cannabis use, said Ware. Patients “were telling everybody who would listen that when they used cannabis, they didn’t feel the need to use the same level of opioids or illicit drugs,” he said.
“We also have scientific data of how cannabis works in the brain. It supports the fact that maybe it could unlock addiction, chronic pain and anxiety. There’s a rationale why this drug could work,” Ware said.
While cannabis and opioid use both have risks for dependency, Ware said that the level of risks and addiction is not the same.
“If you take opioids in higher-than-intended doses, it can cause death. If it’s contaminated, it can kill you,” Ware explained.
Adams said that the “the reality is that people have no idea (what’s in the drug) they’re using.”
Opioids also have horrible withdrawal reactions — nausea, vomiting, chills. “If you suddenly stop cannabis, the withdrawal reactions are very mild, they don’t send you running to get more of the drugs in the same desperate way that you do with opioids,” Ware said.
Ware considers cannabis as a “harm reduction strategy. Cannabis is the lesser of two evils. The level of addiction among cannabis users is very different from opioid users.”
While Adams can’t substantiate cannabis therapy to help curb the opioid crisis, she said that all alternatives must be looked at seriously as “things are not getting any better. We really can’t leave any stones unturned.”
The Gap: Clinical Trials
While his patients say cannabis helps them with pain and addiction, and there is scientific data supporting that reporting, Ware says that the only thing missing is clinical trials.
“That’s the gap we’re in right now,” he said.
Not only is cannabis a “stigmatized substance,” but Ware said that doctors in medical schools are not taught about cannabis as an alternative therapy for pain relief.
“We got consensus from different physicians around the world who have been using cannabis (therapy) with high opioid users. Even though they weren’t taught to do this, they’ve come up with their own ‘recipes,’ ” he said.
Adams suggests that anyone needing help with opioid addictions reach out to a qualified health-care provider such as the Change Health Care clinic at 1-877-937-2282 or 613-283-0359 in Smiths Falls.
By: Yona Harvey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter