Frontline workers and healthcare providers are raising concerns over escalating rates of meth use and meth-related deaths in Canada, an issue that has flown under the radar as opioids have been the main focus of drug policy discussions and media attention.
Data obtained by VICE News shows that deaths linked to methamphetamine are increasing across the country, as are police seizures of the stimulant. The data mirrors similar recent patterns in the U.S.
There were nearly 4,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in Canada in 2017. That same year, methamphetamine was linked to at least nearly 1,000 overdose deaths, according to numbers from coroners and medical examiners.
Meth is also nearing or exceeding fentanyl and other opioids as the most common drug at a number of sanctioned supervised drug consumption sites. And requests for methamphetamine addiction treatment are also growing.
“The opioid crisis has obviously overshadowed things,” Nick Boyce, director at the Ontario Harm Reduction Network, tells VICE. “That’s one thing I’ve been very concerned about is that we focus so much attention on one drug, and understandably so, that we forget about others.”
Late last year, the federal health committee held special hearings devoted to meth, after a Winnipeg MP and former emergency room doctor Doug Eyolfson urged his colleagues to delve into the drug he said had taken a “foothold” in his community. Health Canada has pledged to create a central “drug observatory” to collect national data on the matter.
"I believe that if we'd had a drug observatory earlier, we would've been able to predict that we had an opioid crisis," Health Canada representative Suzy McDonald said at the time. "And we'd be able to give you better information on what the methamphetamine use looks like today."
Overdose death statistics provided to VICE News from provincial coroners and medical examiners show striking increases in deaths related to meth across Canada since 2013, especially over the last three years. Only nine provinces and territories out of 13 provided data, and some numbers were more recent than others.
For instance, overdose deaths in Alberta, where meth was identified as at least one substance on the death certificate, spiked 98 percent from 2016 to 2017, going from 158 to 313 deaths. There were 270 such deaths for 2018.
"We cannot definitively say how many people died from methamphetamine, but rather can only determine the number of drug overdose deaths where methamphetamine was listed on the death certificate, perhaps on its own, or with other substances," a spokesperson for Alberta Health wrote to VICE News.
From 2016 to 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, Ontario saw a 22 percent jump in meth deaths, going from 116 to 142. British Columbia, which has the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the country, saw 32 percent rise in overdose deaths where meth was categorized as “relevant to the death” from 2016 to 2017, meaning meth alone could have been present in post-mortem testing or in combination with other drugs.
“It’s worth noting that this year , fentanyl has been detected in more than 85% of illicit drug overdose deaths—it is fentanyl that is the major issue in B.C.,” a provincial coroner spokesperson told VICE News in an email.
Manitoba, which has been grappling with what provincial leaders have described as a “meth crisis” saw an 84 percent increase in meth-related deaths from 2016 to 2017, going from 19 deaths where meth was a primary or contributing factor in 2016, to 35 such deaths in 2017.
Saskatchewan has reported a steady number of deaths where meth toxicity was at least part of the cause of death. There were 22 such deaths there in 2016, up from just nine in 2015. In 2017, there were 21 such deaths. In 2018, there were at least 19.
Nunavut reported zero methamphetamine deaths since 2013, while Nova Scotia reported two in 2017, up from zero the year before. Newfoundland reported that one meth occurred there in 2018, the only one reported since 2013.
Police meth seizures
While drug seizures and charges laid by law enforcement do not necessarily indicate rates of use of any given drug, they provide a glimpse into police priorities and the availability of a certain substance within that community. Statistics Canada reported there were 8,996 "incidents" of meth possession in 2017, up 14 percent from the year before. Nearly 70 percent of those resulted in a criminal charge.
A survey of 12 police departments across Canada by VICE News shows that methamphetamine seizures and possession charges are, generally, on the rise over the last five years. The data was presented in varying forms depending on the police service, from number of seizures, to quantity, to street value. Interviews and responses from a number of police officers also revealed a sense of fear and trepidation when it comes to dealing with people who use meth, especially those experiencing psychosis, compared to people who use opioids.
The Winnipeg Police Chief told reporters last year that crystal meth use there is replacing opioid use. Data sent to VICE News by the Winnipeg Police service’s shows that meth seizures in the city have skyrocketed since 2016, the earliest year for which it provided data.
“Safe to say issue really started in 2016 where it became significant,” Insp. Max Waddell of the service’s organized crime unit wrote in an email.
In 2018, Winnipeg police seized around 24 kilograms of meth, up by about 50 percent from around 12 kilograms seized in 2017, according to the numbers provided by Waddell.
“The opioid crisis in effect overshadowed what was occurring behind the scenes, which we now know turned out to be a growing increase in the methamphetamine user group,” Waddell wrote.
“There appears to have been a dramatic increase in methamphetamine’s involvement in a large variety of calls for service, with increased violence, property crime and person crimes,” continued Waddell in response to questions about the impacts of meth on the community.
“These crimes are extremely difficult to accurately measure in that how can we say with 100 percent certainty someone is high on meth without a blood test?? Not practical. Impossible to prove.”
Waddell also called for greater resources for the healthcare community in order to meet the needs of people seeking addictions treatment.
“What we do know is that we are not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” Waddell continued. “The solution: once the demand for the illicit drug ceases, only then will the supply chain follow. This [is] a community problem and will take [the] entire community to work together should we wish to be successful.”
Meth seizures in Calgary have soared at a much higher rate, going from 142 seizures of meth in 2013 to more than 1,739 in 2018.
“It’s kind of caught us a little off guard because we’ve been spending a lot of attention working with the communities and health services because of the medical crisis opioid overdoses has caused, and now meth is becoming increasingly prevalent,” Calgary Police Insp. Kevin Forsen told VICE News in a phone interview.
He added that seizures of both cocaine and fentanyl have recently dropped, as meth seizures rise every year.
“So far this year the number of seizures for fentanyl in calgary is 572 … the number of seizures of fentanyl is less than half the seizures of meth,” Forsen said. “Right now we’re seeing there’s a relationship between property crimes, specifically auto thefts and break and enters too. Auto thefts, and the presence of meth, either the possession or use of itm is present in a high percentage of investigations.”
Though the Regina Police Service did not report the quantities of meth it has seized, it provided the number criminal charges for meth possession that show they have tripled from 2016 to 2017, going from 11.6 charges per 100,000 people in 2016 to 32.76 meth charges per 100,000 people in 2017. The city’s population is around 215,000.
Regina Police spokesperson Elizabeth Popowich wrote to VICE News an email there has been a ”dramatic rise in both methamphetamine possession and trafficking use in the city” but these numbers only represent what is detected by police, and not the whole picture.
“There is already recognition that this is not a crime issue, but a societal issue,” Popowich wrote.
“As a society, we could use more resources to address root causes of crime: poverty; lack of affordable, safe housing; truancy; addictions; family dysfunction. Creating the list of what we would like to see is easy. The challenge lies in funding and committing over a period of decades to making change on a societal level.”
Harm reduction and treatment
Advocates say there needs to be better awareness and resources for harm reduction tools tailored specifically for people who use meth, and say that drug policy discussions should encompass substances in addition to opioids. This includes programs to help people who choose to continue using drugs to do so in a safer way—including through syringe exchange, new pipes, and supervised consumption—and programs for those who want to curb or halt their use.
They also say that increasing reports of methamphetamine use, especially among youth in their late teens and early 20s, are linked to ongoing housing and affordability crises and limited mental health resources.
While meth is by no means a new substance, Nick Boyce of the Ontario Harm Reduction Network, and other harm reduction workers, say the drug appears to have become even cheaper and even more readily available in recent years—and police officers agree.
In response, a number of new meth-specific programs have popped up in Toronto that operate differently from those for people who use opioids. And local doctors are experimenting with innovative treatments for people struggling with meth use.
Boyce and other harm reduction advocates are also rolling out initiatives that combat the myths and stereotypes that typically permeate public discussions around meth.
Boyce said it’s important to balance the potential negative aspects of the drug with reality.
“It’s been used for decades,” he said. “People can use it in a safer way, but in order to have those conversations, in order to help people stay safe, it doesn’t help when we put this fear and stigma around it.”
There are more than 30 Health Canada-approved supervised drug consumption sites currently offering services. As a direct response to soaring opioid overdose deaths, the federal government vowed to support health authorities that wanted to open site. These sites are also seeing more and more reports of meth use.
Meth was the most popular substance that clients reported using at one of Edmonton’s sites in 2018, and it was the third most popular at another, after hydromorphone and morphine, an Alberta Health Services spokesperson told VICE News in an email.
Over the last several months, meth has by far become the most popular substance reported at the Calgary site. In November of 2018, meth/crystal was reportedly used 2,125 times while fentanyl was reportedly used 1,646. The reports of meth use have continued to rise since then, while reported fentanyl use has remained steady,
CBC previously reported that the numbers of methamphetamine use at Insite in Vancouver—North America’s first sanctioned supervised consumption site—skyrocketed 600 percent from 2005 to 2016. There were 4,981 people who reported injecting the drug at the site in 2005, and 35,238 in 2016.
As for people who are seeking addictions treatment for meth use, healthcare providers and harm reduction workers say dedicated resources and programs are few and far between. And the number of people looking to access those services is also on the rise.
In Ontario alone, the number of times people reached out to ConnexOntario, the province’s mental health and addictions helpline service, specifically for meth has gone up every year since 2013, which had 751 requests for meth treatment, according to numbers provided to VICE News.
That number ballooned to 2,040 in 2017 and 2,460 in 2018. So far this year, there have been 425 requests to ConnexOntario for meth-related treatment.
Speaking at the federal health committee’s meth hearings last year, the medical director of the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, Dr. Ginette Poulin, said that 48 percent of people seeking addictions help from that organization report meth as their substance of choice. She also said there has been a 104 percent increase in the number of adults reporting meth as their preferred substance from 2014/2015 to 2016/2017.
"We need to look at the issues that reside below, and certainly one of them is trauma," said Poulin.
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