Overdose death prompts calls for education, decriminalization


The body of a man who died of an apparent drug overdose was dropped off at an Ottawa hospital Sunday morning, an incident that has health workers questioning what more can be done to educate opioid users about their options.


The man’s body was dropped off at the General campus of the Ottawa Hospital around 3:30 a.m. Sunday, according to an Ottawa police spokesperson.

The two people who left the body told officers they merely thought the man was unconscious, police said.

Police are investigating the incident as a suspicious death, and no charges have been laid as of Monday.

That it happened at all has some medical professionals wondering why.

Treatment options expanding

There are numerous supports in Ottawa for those struggling with opioids, according to Elizabeth Shouldice, an emergency room doctor at the Queensway Carleton Hospital and co-founder of Ottawa West Recovery, which provides opioid replacement therapy.

The challenge now is making sure physicians are aware of those services so they can direct patients to the proper treatment options, she said.​

The city’s four supervised injection sites also offer users the chance to speak to nurses and explore treatment options.

Ottawa Public Health, which runs one of the sites, encourages opioid users — and their friends and family — to carry naloxone, a medication that can block the effects of opioids, and to educate themselves on deadly drugs like fentanyl.

In most overdose cases involving hospitals, people call 911. For example, of the 188 visits to the Montfort hospital for suspected opioid overdoses, only 18 involved patients who come to the hospital on their own or with family or friends.

Andrew Hendriks, director of health protection at Ottawa Public Health, said it is vital to act quickly to get help.

“Having police and paramedics on scene as soon as possible is very important,” Hendricks said.

The push to reduce stigma

But the stigma of addiction and the fear of reprisal might still be keeping people from making the safest choice, according to Fred Phelps, executive director of the Canadian Association of Social Workers.

“People aren’t proudly coming forward and saying, I have addiction issues right now,” he said. “In many instances, people are afraid for their jobs, afraid for the reputation that goes down with it.”

Hendriks said public education is one of the biggest ways to combat discrimination and stigma when it comes to drug use.

“It’s OK to talk about mental health and addictions, it’s OK to talk about drug use, and often, other people may be facing similar situations,” he said. “The more we talk about it, the more awareness we can raise.”

​It’s unclear why the people who drove the man to hospital didn’t call 911. Police wouldn’t say, citing the ongoing investigation.

But in the face of an overdose, there’s a chance some users could be fearful of facing drug charges if they call emergency services, Phelps said.

​’An unthinkable choice’

“It’s an unthinkable choice and it’s a choice that Canadians don’t need to be put into,” he said.

Faced with rising overdoses, the federal government passed the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act in May 2017.

It provides some legal protection for people who call for help during an overdose, including protection from drug possession charges and charges related to a breach of conditions, such as parole or probation orders.

However, the legislation doesn’t provide blanket protection. An emergency caller can still be charged if they have outstanding warrants, or if they’re producing or trafficking a controlled substance.

Phelps said it’s time to look at decriminalizing drug use as a final step in tackling the opioid crisis.

“It is a health concern and a health concern needs to be addressed with health tools, not criminal justice tools,” he said. “I don’t know how many more people across Canada need to die before we recognize that it’s time.”