Opioid overdoses on the rise

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By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As in many other Ontario communities, potent fentanyl continues to kill in Chatham-Kent.

According to Renee Geniole, executive director of R.O.C.K. Missions, five residents the outreach regularly worked with have died in 2024 as the result of suspected fentanyl overdose.

But the number doesn’t begin to tell the whole story, Geniole said, noting the pervasive use of the drug – and other opioids – is impacting families in every corner of the municipality.

“It’s getting bad out there,” Geniole told The Chatham Voice in a recent interview. “We’ve lost five friends since Jan. 1. The increase in overdoses has us worried. It’s astounding really.”

While all drugs are dangerous, fentanyl is the current king. The drug, like other opioids, offers pain relief and euphoria, but it can also depress respiration, causing a person to stop breathing. However, drugs such as naloxone can be administered to counter the effects of opioid overdose and save lives.

An innate fear of police and authority compounds the problem, Geniole said, adding that when someone overdoses in a drug house, their peers will administer naloxone to reverse overdose. They do this rather than calling 911, Geniole said, even though the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act provides some legal protection for those who call an ambulance or help someone who is overdosing.

The news comes on the heels of several communities in the province declaring an emergency and warning opioid users of increased toxicity of the lethal drug. In neighbouring Lambton County on Feb. 2, the health unit issued a public advisory warning of the drug’s lethal effects following spikes in suspected opioid related overdoses and deaths.

Lambton OPP is also warning people that opioids – primarily fentanyl – are taking a toll, with many unknowingly ingesting drugs cut with fentanyl – meaning they have no idea they’ve consumed fentanyl.

Bkejwanong Territory Walpole Island First Nation (WIFN) is also seeing an increase in opioid overdoses, with leaders again emphasizing the extreme danger that is part and parcel of drug use. Walpole Island declared an opioid-related state of emergency in 2021 and they are again sounding the alarm, with leaders – including respected grandmothers – ramping up the community’s war on drugs.

A meeting on the subject was held at the Walpole Island Community Cultural Centre arena Feb. 22, drawing some 100 people. The gathering saw residents – many who have lost loved ones to overdose – brainstorm ways to combat the problem.

A myriad of ideas, ranging from increased police presence, resuming checkpoints at the bridge connecting Walpole Island to the mainland, banishing known drug dealers who are not band members from the Island, building an addictions treatment centre, increasing opportunities for youth, providing more teaching in the traditional culture, and offering land-based traditional healing for addictions were some of the points brought forward.

Elder Bev Williams, who helped lead the meeting, emphasized that WIFN has declared a “state of emergency” and everyone needs to pitch in to address the problem.

“We do want to see action and we need to come up with some ideas of what we can do,” Williams said. “The council can’t do it by themselves.”

A recent drug bust that saw five people charged with trafficking was directly tied to selling drugs on Walpole Island.

“We need more policing to intercept the drugs,” said one woman in the audience. “We have to stop them from killing our people.”

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