More powerful drugs worry Ottawa overdose prevention workers

There is a change in the drug supply in Ottawa and it is beginning to scare those working to prevent overdoses, says an organizer with the pop-up supervised injection site set up in a Lowertown park.

“I am really worried by what I am seeing right now,” said Marilou Gagnon, associate professor of nursing at the University of Ottawa and an organizer of the site. “I am really scared as to what is going to happen to people on the streets.”

She said the numbers of atypical overdoses and other signs of a stronger drug supply confirm that there is a strong need for the pop-up site. Since the opening of a small Ottawa Public Health supervised injection site, there has been pressure on the pop-up site to close down. Organizers say they plan to remain until its services are no longer needed in the area.

“There are not enough people in this city right now to save lives when we see how powerful these drugs are right now.”

Last week, Gagnon said, volunteers at the site began seeing “atypical” drug reactions among some visitors, during which people’s bodies became rigid and unmovable, something often associated with the deadly drug carfentanil. During more typical overdoses, victims become limp and often fall over. In addition, she said, it was taking more than an hour to revive some clients after injecting.

“Something is happening in Ottawa,” she wrote on Twitter.

Last week, Health Canada confirmed the deadly drug carfentanil, in addition to fentanyl, had been found in Ottawa drugs seized in August. The drugs were being sold as heroin, but no heroin was found in samples analyzed at government labs.

Public health and overdose prevention workers knew both fentanyl and carfentanil had shown up in Ottawa in recent months, they say. Gagnon said what they have been seeing in recent days suggests the presence of fentanyl and perhaps carfentanil, but also a much stronger drug supply. Volunteers at the pop up site, she said, administered naloxone twice in the past few days, and also have seen several clients who took up to 90 minutes to be able to walk away after injecting drugs.

“We are very concerned.”

There has been a surge in overdoses and a number of deaths in Ottawa since early this year when fentanyl began showing up in the drug supply. During a recent weekend, there were three overdose deaths in the Ottawa area and those who work with the community say there are dozens of overdoses every month. Those numbers were the impetus for setting up the unsanctioned site in Raphael Brunet Park in late August.

When it opened, there were no supervised injection sites in the city. Health Canada has approved one at the Sandy Hill Community Centre, just off Rideau Street, but renovation work has delayed its opening until later this year.

Ottawa Public Health rushed to open a small supervised injection site in its building on Clarence Street in the market in response to growing numbers of overdoses during the summer.

Volunteers with the pop-up site, which has served more than 1,300 people since opening, have said they will continue to operate until they feel the need is met. Despite criticism from some neighbours and some members of city council who want them to shut down, they have been working with Ottawa Public Health, said Gagnon.

“We have been talking to Ottawa Public Health every week since we opened. We collaborate and exchange information. We are both working in the same direction.”

Public health, she said, knows some users will never go to its site, which allows one user at a time and doesn’t allow for inhalation. The pop-up site allows people to be accompanied.

Ottawa Inner City Health, which operates some of its programs out of Shepherds of Good Hope, wants to open another supervised injection site nearby in the parking lot of the shelter at King Edward Avenue and Murray Street. Officials there are hoping the trailer with eight injection booths will open by the end of this month. They are still awaiting federal permission.

Gagnon said drug users she has spoken to say they are unable to find weaker drugs to reduce their risk of overdosing. Some are also having difficulty accessing recovery services, she said.

“They don’t want to expose themselves to the risk of dying. This has to do with a market that is very dangerous. We are here to help them when that happens.”

Gagnon did not rule out opening in another part of the city if it sees a need.

“Lowertown is not the only area of the city where people use drugs and are dying, so of course we would look into where we are needed next.”

By Elizabeth Payne
Source: Ottawa Citizen