By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Chatham-Kent may add its voice to the chorus calling for national action on the opioid crisis.
Elected officials were expected to consider a notice put forward by Chatham Coun. Amy Finn Monday, urging the federal government to approach the opioid scourge with the same urgency brought to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The detailed motion calls for government to step up prevention, harm reduction and treatment programs, along with decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.
Finn, a retired Chatham-Kent Police Services officer with 30 years’ service, said drug overdoses and “toxic poisonings” are killing people at unprecedented rate.
Jailing addicts doesn’t solve the problem, Finn said in a recent interview.
Charging mentally ill people with criminal offences in relation to possession of small amounts of drugs only compounds the issue, she explained.
“Putting somebody in jail ties up resources,” Finn said, adding it eats up valuable time in the courts and with police officers.
In Chatham-Kent, the pandemic has heightened the opioid emergency. In 2020, local overdose deaths tripled, rising from six in 2019 to 15.
Across Ontario there was an average of six opioid-related deaths per day.
More help for addictions needs to be available, Finn explained.
“Nobody wakes up deciding they are going to become an addict,” Finn said. “These people have deep rooted problems. These are mental health issues.”
Finn, through her volunteer work with outreach programs such as R.O.C.K. Missions, said she’s familiar with local people mired in substance abuse.
“They’re not bad people, they’re troubled,” she said.
Finn’s motion also calls for expansion of safe injection sites as part of harm reduction, as many people die because of poisonous drug toxicity, often found in fentanyl.
Lives can be saved if an overdose patient is treated immediately with an antidote such as Naloxone that counteracts decreased respiration brought on by opioids. Administering life-saving drugs to counteract overdose is part of the harm-reduction strategy.
The numbers of people seeking help for addictions at the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance is growing exponentially as well.
The CKHA Rapid Access to Addiction Medicine (RAAM) Clinic saw a sharp rise in the number of patients who visited the no-barrier clinic in 2020, and based on 2021 numbers, the number of people seeking help may set another record.
In 2019-20, visits to the clinic totalled 224 but that number spiked to 755 for 2020-21. The reported year runs from April 1 to March 31.
There have been 313 visits to the clinic since April 1 of this year. A total of 113 unique individuals have been served since April as well, but some of them make multiple visits.
Finn said people need a safe place to use where they will not be judged. With the criminal element removed, it helps an addict to not only survive, but to be able to reach out and access services to get help and recover.
Few Canadians are untouched by the opioid epidemic.
Finn said it doesn’t matter where you live, everyone is affected by someone’s use and abuse of opioids.
“It’s someone’s son or daughter or parent who overdoses and dies,” she said. “Those people need to know they are worth the investment of resources.”
Chatham-Kent police currently operate the successful Mobile Crisis Unit, whereby a mental health nurse accompanies a plainclothes officer in response to mental health police calls.
Council’s motion is on side with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police who are also calling for decriminalization.
Council is expected to forward the request for action on the opioid crisis to all levels of government.