As a new cluster of overdose deaths signals a worsening of the opioid crisis in Toronto, the city’s police force say they have no plans to arm officers with the lifesaving overdose antidote naloxone.
On Saturday, Toronto police released a warning after four people were found dead of suspected opioid overdoses in three days, and 20 others overdosed, something that police spokesperson Const. Craig Brister described to reporters as “quite unusual.” While it’s believed the deaths are linked to the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl that’s been responsible for thousands of deaths across the country in recent years — including a 73 percent increase in deaths from 2004 to 2015 — that’s yet to be confirmed in these cases.
Brister went on to say it’s uncommon to see these types of drug-related deaths occur so close together in time and proximity in the downtown core. Two men overdosed and died right near the location of one of the city’s three future supervised drug consumption sites, which are expected to open in the coming months, although there’s no exact date.
The Toronto police have no plans to equip the force with naloxone, despite harsh criticisms and the fact that many others across Canada and the U.S. are doing so to help combat overdoses, as well as protect officers should they come in contact with the deadly substances on the job.
Harm reduction workers throughout the city have reported a recent spike in demand for naloxone kits.
Harm reduction workers throughout the city have reported a recent spike in demand for naloxone kits, as overdoses have risen in recent months in tandem with an increasingly potent illicit drug supply. Jason Altenberg, program director at Toronto’s South Riverdale Community Health Centre, where one of the safe consumption sites will be located, said that he and his colleagues have been warning police and city officials for weeks about a worsening opioid crisis, including at an emergency meeting last week.
“Before the police issued their alert over the weekend, there’s no question we were feeling it,” he said, adding that all signs are pointing to a need for even more safe drug consumption sites in the city, in addition to the three that have already been approved.
Altenberg also called for all first responders including police, to carry naloxone. “If they’re going to be part of the frontline response and if they say their primary goal is preserving life, then why not,” he said. “If laypeople can be trained for five to 10 minutes to effectively administer naloxone … why wouldn’t they want it.”
The force is confident that having paramedics carry the antidote is sufficient enough.
Last year, the RCMP announced his force would start carrying the nasal spray version of naloxone. The Vancouver Police personnel started carrying it around then as well in an effort to support frontline paramedics and harm reduction workers in the city who are constantly dealing with opioid overdoses, sometimes multiple overdoses in a day.
“It is essential that we provide our staff with the medication that would be necessary in the event of an accidental exposure to toxic substances,” the VPD chief said at the time. Earlier this year, New Mexico became the first state to mandate that all local and state police carry naloxone amid skyrocketing rates of overdose deaths.
Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash has repeatedly said that while it’s been considered, the force is confident that having paramedics carry the antidote is sufficient enough.
In response to the recent rash of suspected overdose deaths, Pugash clarified to the Toronto Star that Toronto police have a policy to only administer epiPens, used in emergencies to treat anaphylaxis. In March, the city approved an overdose action plan that recommended expanding the free distribution of naloxone kits, getting approvals to provide prescription heroin to those who are chronically addicted, and publishing overdose data online in real time.