Regional Response to Use of Opioids

New Voice. New Ideas. New Vision.

Like most communities, the Region of Waterloo (ROW) is experiencing an opioid crisis which has been escalating for a number of years with devastating effects. People die because of opioid or tainted drug use, prescription drugs and/or street drugs. People in our communities are experiencing growing concern for their safety.

This is a very complex health care crisis in our community and to better understand the history, current situation, and how we can work together, I have reached out to some of my friends who are working on the front-line dealing with this crisis to contribute some information for this article. During the last two years, I assumed a leadership position with the capital campaign at House of Friendship to build a new addiction health care facility. Through this experience, I have gained a glimpse of the challenges in dealing with addictions and I am fully convinced that this is a health care issue that is treatable if we can develop a comprehensive strategy for prevention and treatment.

It was around 2008 when local professionals working in the area of crime prevention, justice enforcement, and addiction treatment raised concerns about opioid use and sales in our community. In ROW the use of opioids has resulted in a high cost to individuals, their families, employers, and the community.  There is a high financial cost, a high human cost, and a high cost to the health of the population.  There are solutions to this crisis, but there is no single solution. It is tempting to say that if we had more treatment beds that would solve the crisis or that a supervised injection site would solve the crisis, or that more outreach workers would solve the crisis or that fewer prescriptions would, more pain support clinics would, less human trauma would, increased police focus would, less availability of bootleg opioids would; in fact, it is a combination of all these things and more that will be needed to solve the crisis.  It costs more to not address this crisis than to address it.

What are opioids? They are often prescribed as part of a pain management solution because they contain chemicals that relax the body and can relieve pain. Prescription opioids are used mostly to treat moderate to severe pain. Opioids reportedly make people feel very relaxed and “high” — which is what leads users of the drug to develop an addiction. Overdoses and death are common and there is a link between chronic pain and opioid addiction, with nearly 80% of heroin users reported transitioning to heroin from prescription opioid abuse.

Opioids are highly addictive and, despite the alarming prescription rates, the drugs aren’t meant for long-term use. A prolonged use of these drugs ultimately worsens the chronic pain symptoms. It is claimed that the brain, in an effort to counter the effects of the drugs, can increase the pain sensations. Similarly, an individual may develop tolerance to these drugs, which will drive a user to increase the dosage or opt for stronger or potent opioids to calm oneself. This has led to an uncontrolled abuse of opioids and countless deaths due to its overdose.

Unfortunately, there is significant stigma and discrimination directed at individuals who use opioids and their families rather than recognizing it as an illness that requires the same response from the community and health care professionals as does heart disease or cancer. If we could eliminate this stigma, we would have a better opportunity to increase appropriate financial resources directed at prevention, harm reduction, treatment services, and more people seeking help. This addiction would be recognized for the health issue that it is and would be treated as such.

The Waterloo Region Integrated Drug Strategy (WRIDS) is a valuable resource. With adequate funding and support, we can address problematic substance use — including opioids – in Waterloo Region. The WRIDS works with the philosophy that to effectively address opioid use in our community an integrated approach needs to be taken, focusing on prevention, harm reduction, rehabilitation, recovery, enforcement, and justice. We need to invest in effective prevention strategies, recognize the important role harm reduction plays in overall individual and community health, ensure there are enough treatment spaces, for individuals that need them, when they need them, and that enforcement and justice services are strong.

In Waterloo Region, we need to continue to be leaders in responding to this major health care concern. I commit myself to working with Regional staff and community health care professionals to find ways to work with individuals and their families who are affected by the increasing use of opioids and the impact that their use has on our Region.

Waterloo Region deserves….


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