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opioid crisis

Toronto is also mulling bulk purchases of naloxone as part of its efforts for quicker distribution to necessary personnel.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Toronto is considering fast-tracking the opening of three supervised drug-use sites and will ask some police officers to carry a life-saving antidote to fentanyl after a spate of deaths linked to tainted street drugs over the past week.

Public-health officials across the country have warned for months that authorities in Toronto should be prepared for the appearance of powerful illicit painkillers that led to the deaths of thousands of Canadians over the past two years.

The deaths, starting in Alberta and British Columbia, have moved east across the Prairies as potent opioids have been inexpertly mixed with street drugs, yielding lethal cocktails.

Read more: How Canada got addicted to fentanyl

Six people have died from suspected overdose and dozens more have had non-fatal incidents since July 27, leading Toronto Mayor John Tory to call public-safety and health officials to his office Thursday for a meeting about the fatalities nearly a week after the city's police issued a public-safety alert about the deaths.

Mr. Tory said officials in Toronto will be asking some police officers to carry naloxone, which can reverse an overdose within minutes. Most major police forces in Western Canada decided to equip their officers with the antidote last fall. The city also wants all firefighters in areas with higher rates of overdose to be trained on administering naloxone by the end of September. Mr. Tory said he is considering an emergency bulk purchase of the antidote.

"There is no magic answer but I think we can at least sit down and try to prevent deaths," the Mayor told reporters after the meeting with officials from the city's police and fire departments, paramedics and some city councillors.

British Columbia, which has been in a state of emergency for more than a year because of opioid deaths, is on pace for nearly 1,500 overdose fatalities this year. Officials in Alberta have made kits with the antidote naloxone available to everyone in the province citing the scope of the province's drug crisis.

Councillor Joe Mihevc, the chair of Toronto's board of health, said on Thursday that he is now looking at ways to speed up construction of the city's supervised drug-use sites. Three of the sites have been approved and granted construction permits, but the first is not expected to open before November.

"That last hurdle is getting construction under way and hiring and training the staff," he told The Globe and Mail. "We had originally thought a November opening, now we're saying that even if it costs more money let's do what we can to open earlier. A week earlier is still a week."

The councillor also wants Toronto to work at increasing its collection of data, which will help it identify hot spots for overdoses and react more quickly.

On Thursday, Health Canada approved a supervised drug-use site in Victoria, granting an exemption from Canada's drug laws in an effort to reduce overdose deaths in the city.

Within a matter of weeks, the city will know whether the recent deaths are linked to a permanent increase in lethal drugs like what has been seen across Western Canada, or whether this was the result of a single bad batch of street drugs poorly mixed with inexpensive opioids.

"Time will tell whether this is a bad batch of too much fentanyl in heroin, but we won't know for a while. If this is the leading edge of a surge in opioid-related deaths, I'm surprised it's taken this long, we've been expecting this for a long time," said David Juurlink, head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

The number of deaths related to fentanyl has risen in Toronto over recent years, increasing from zero in 2008 to 42 in 2015. Toronto Public Health's most recent data indicate there were 87 opioid-related deaths in the city in the first six months of 2016, and there were 135 opioid-related deaths in 2015. Earlier this year, the city released an Overdose Action Plan that called for a series of steps to respond to overdoses.

Toronto's response will be crucial to determining how many Canadians are killed by drug overdoses this year. Dr. Juurlink expects 3,000 Canadians could be killed by drug overdoses this year.

With files from The Canadian Press

At the Sunshine Coast Health Centre in Powell River, B.C., men in treatment for addiction say stigma about substance abuse make it harder to get help. One client says men at the facility are trying to 'become good people again.'

The Canadian Press