Stress, anxiety, and limited access to services brought on by the pandemic as well as the increasing toxicity of the drug supply may have exacerbated the opioid crisis in the region, District councillors heard at their July 19 virtual meeting.
The OPP is trying to get a better handle on the extent of opioid-related deaths in the area and that includes better data, Inspector Jim Walker from the Ontario Provincial Police Organized Crime and Enforcement Bureau told council. He said preliminary findings show there were 112 opioid-related deaths in Simcoe Muskoka since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a 32 per cent increase from the 85 deaths in the ten months immediately preceding COVID-19.
In Muskoka, so far, the data shows that in the past three and a half years there have been 35 opioid-related deaths, added Bracebridge OPP detachment commander, Inspector Michael Burton. “I’m speaking for myself right now, but I find those numbers quite alarming,” he told council.
Walker said the issue is complex and addressing it requires a multi-pronged approach with multiple sectors coming together.
At the provincial level, an opiate working group was created in 2017 and one of the initiatives immediately undertaken was to provide naloxone to front-line police officers. The medication can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and allow time for medical help to arrive.
Recognizing that the issue has also taken hold in Simcoe Muskoka, in 2017/2018 an opiate strategy group was created in this area. Their focus included looking at harm reduction, prevention and enforcement, more accurate data and analysis, and information related to lived experiences shared by those personally involved in the opiate crisis, said Walker. “From an emergency management, they are obviously responsible for the Simcoe Muskoka opiate management response plan where if it meets a threshold of a number of overdoses… they monitor that regularly and if we start to see a spike in overdoses in a cluster… community bulletins can go out.”
He said the Simcoe Muskoka group has partnered with Stats Canada in a pilot project to help understand the issues surrounding opioid-related overdoses, including deaths. Information gathered between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2019, shows that of those who overdosed, presumably from opioids, 43 per cent were employed males and one-third worked in the construction industry. Thirty-eight per cent of females involved in an opioid overdose were employed, and one-fourth were employed in the accommodations and food services industry. “So those are just kind of some of the findings to start looking at vulnerable populations… so that we can start making suggestions, whether it comes from a health-based approach with the data backing it up,” Walker told council.
Speaking to the pilot and its preliminary findings, Burton referred to the data as “extremely valuable to help us try and figure out where we go from here.” He said the Bracebridge, Huntsville, and southern Georgian Bay police detachments recognize that the issue is not just about enforcement. “This is not just an enforcement issue, this is very complex, as Jim said, so many factors are coming together to create this crisis for us. These are human beings who are the victims of this crisis… it’s not just enforcement, we’re looking at it from how can we save some lives. How can we prevent some overdoses.” Burton said front-line officers in Muskoka also carry naloxone “and I can tell you we have numerous examples in all our detachments where our officers have utilized it and have successfully prevented a death.”
The Bracebridge detachment has entered into a partnership program with the Canadian Mental Health Association. Among the initiatives, a mental health worker works alongside officers up to 35 hours per week. “They’re doing a few different things, they are attending mental health-related calls for service that often involve addictions.” He said they also conduct following-up visits to people who have been involved with police for mental health reasons, which can involve addiction “and through that program, hopefully providing some necessary services and assistance to these people. That might keep them away from that overdose or overdose death that could have, or might occur, without that outreach happening.”
Burton said the outreach also includes visiting people in the community, providing information about the overdose problem, and giving out naloxone, and explaining the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, which applies to anyone seeking assistance during an overdose.
Over the past year, various Muskoka agencies and stakeholders have partnered to create the Muskoka situation table. “Again this is extremely successful and if you’re not familiar with it, to summarize: It’s a group of community agencies and stakeholders who come together, given COVID we’re coming together virtually, and discussing and identifying people or situations who are acutely high-risk and coming up with solutions to assist these people, again with the end-goal of trying to keep them away from a potential situation where they could harm themselves and many of these situations do involve opioids,” he told council.
Burton also noted that all of the Muskoka-area detachments have a community street crime unit. “Excellent teams who work together across the region, across the province and as a result of their efforts… [there have been]some very impressive seizures, charges [against]those involved in this economy whose sole purpose is to take advantage of the people we’re trying to help and make a dollar off of it.”
The community street crime units have been in existence for almost three years, added Walker and said their mandate includes opiates and firearms.
Walker said a good example of the teamwork and partnerships taking place throughout the area is an investigation dubbed Project Garfield that started in December 2020 about a group of individuals trafficking fentanyl and crack cocaine from a shared phone in the central part of the province. There were overdoses in Muskoka that police were able to link back to that phone. He said police followed the activity to street gangs operating in the Barrie area, “they were basically operating in shifts 24/7 in and around the Barrie area but those drugs were then travelling from Barrie out into the other OPP police communities around central region,” said Walker.
He said those involved were identified and most had a significant history of firearm and drug offences. “Then from Barrie those drugs would come up into your community,” he told District councillors. He said tactical warrants resulted in 12 people being charged with 149 offences ranging from trafficking fentanyl to crack cocaine and firearms. While the charges are still before the courts, he said, more importantly, investigators were able to link the activity to organized crime in the GTA. “It was a business that was bringing drugs from the GTA up into cental region here strictly for profit.”
Walker said “in excess of 175 officers participated in that takedown and this is ultimately what we got off the street on takedown day, [it]was almost a half a kilogram of fentanyl, a significant amount of cocaine but more importantly was four of those 12 individuals were armed with handguns. So that’s one of the priorities, besides the opiates, is the firearms in the community and ensuring that we get those off the streets.” He also said the courts are getting stricter in handing out sentences related to fentanyl trafficking.
“We remain committed to joint law enforcement efforts that target, disrupt, dismantle street gangs and their other criminal enterprises, namely fentanyl trafficking in this case. We’re seeing more and more of the street gangs and their impact coming out into smaller communities and the serious impacts that they can have, and potentially violent acts.”
District chair John Klinck thanked all of those involved. “Undoubtedly you are dealing with an organized and formidable adversary but your success in operation Garfield I think can show that if you dig in and employ the excellent resources that the OPP possess, our communities will be the better for it.”
More information about the Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy can be found here.
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