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From Wonder Drug to Epidemic – U of T Talks takes on Canada’s Opioid crisis

By Catherine Choi

The Opioid crisis has become a critical issue that can no longer be ignored as the number of Opioid-related deaths increases yearly at a frightening speed. On June 28th, UofT Talks hosted an open discussion of the Opioid crisis with the following key questions: How did the Opioid crisis become such a huge epidemic? How are the patients involved and engaged in resolving the issue? How does the social stigma around the use of opioids stand in the way of the solution?

UofT Talks featured four speakers, each with their own unique perspective – Nicole Ireland, Matt Johnson, Dr. Hance Clarke, and Dr. David Juurlink. Nicole Ireland, a national reporter and producer for CBC news in Toronto, discussed the history of the Opioid crisis in Canada and the damaging impact that OxyContin has had on remote First Nations communities, as well as the social stigma surrounding Opioid use. “Nobody is immune to addiction.” she shared, “It can happen to anybody in this room.”

 Dr. David Jurrlink, a staff internist and head of the division of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology at Sunnybrook, discussed the safety of Opioids and the risks of prescribing them to patients. He explained that the measurement of the benefits versus harm in Opioid use is a tricky scale and the concept for patients to “do well” on high dose chronic pain medication results in irreversible consequences further down the road. Jurrlink stated that, “With higher doses of Opioids over time, the balance of benefits and risks shifts toward the latter.”

Matt Johnson, a Harm Reduction Program Coordinator at Queen West Community Health Centre, discussed the success and positive impact that the Overdose Prevention Site in Moss Park has had, and the importance of involving patients and drug users in the implementation of the services for them. For Johnson, the Opioid crisis can be viewed as an opportunity to make a change in the system as people are finally viewing it as a critical concern. “We are not in an Opioid crisis.” he said, “We are in an overdose crisis, a drug poisoning crisis, and a drug policy crisis. This did not start with Fentanyl. And we will have this after Fentanyl.” 

Dr. Hance Clark, Director of Pain Services and the Pain Research Unit at the Toronto General Hospital, addressed Canada’s problem in the Opioid crisis as the inability to cope with high-dose overdose patients, as well as the complexity of diagnosing the level of pain patients experience and the consequences of prescriptions. Clark emphasized that, “We have to stop treating numbers. Pain is not a number, it’s a function.” 

The UofT Talks event highlighted that the use of Opioids is a multifaceted issue that is more complex than just drug misuse or an overdose problem. The Opioid crisis is not just a medical issue, but a societal one as well and harm reduction programs throughout the country play an essential role in preventing overdoses and providing accessible care.


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