A 41% rise in nine years is blamed in part on increasing use of heroin and fentanyl.
Peter Leslie remembers that late spring day well.
While standing in the lobby of a Parkdale apartment building, someone told him a man was overdosing on heroin upstairs.
Leslie rushed into the apartment and was able to revive the unconscious man by injecting naloxone, an antidote to opioid drug overdoses, saving his life.
But many more people in Toronto were not so lucky.
Reported deaths from drug overdoses jumped dramatically between 2004 and 2013, according to Toronto Public Health. Numbers collected in a report to be presented next Tuesday show overdose deaths rose by 41 per cent in that period, from 146 in 2004 to 206 in 2013.
“This is a serious, almost plague-like situation,” said Leslie, a former paramedic and harm reduction worker.
Ward 20 Councillor Joe Cressy, who is chair of Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Panel, blamed the increase on rising use of opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, a potent painkiller that can be abused in its patch form or ingested through an illegal pill or powder.
“Deaths due to overdose are on the increase in our city, and they needn’t be,” Cressy told the Star.
The city runs several programs to try to reduce overdoses, including distributing naloxone to people who use opioid drugs, he said.
Leslie, who uses prescription opioid drugs for pain management, was given training and a naloxone kit through a Toronto Public Health Program.
To get naloxone, people must be known opioid drug users and complete the program.
Cressy believes it should be easier to access and available over the counter.
Natalie Kallio, harm reduction program lead at the Parkdale Community Health Centre, agrees. She said she’s frustrated by the fact that naloxone isn’t more easily available.
“We’ve lost some very beloved members of this community recently in quick succession,” she said, of the overdoses she calls an “epidemic” in the neighbourhood.
“In every case there’s a family, that we may or may not know about, that comes out and is just devastated.”
Kallio said she’s noticed an increase in overdoses, particularly in the last six months.
“There are a variety of reasons that people think it’s happening,” she said. One is that since OxyContin was taken off the market, people are replacing it with “whatever they can get.”
In addition, “ fentanyl is obviously a problem, and it’s unstable,” she said.
Kallio said she’s frustrated by the fact that naloxone isn’t more easily available.
Good Samaritan laws are needed to protect people from facing potential drug charges when they call 911 after someone they’re with overdoses. “It’s all preventable,” she said.