A Toronto councillor is sharing their story of overcoming addiction in light of the growing opioid crisis in the city.

During a recent Board of Health meeting in which Toronto Public Health (TPH) released their annual Overdose Plan of Action, City Councillor for Toronto Centre Robin Buxton Potts opened up about their struggles with drugs and alcohol.

“This is a topic that is very close to my heart and in the interest of breaking my own anonymity – I am a recovering addict, alcoholic and drug user,” shared Buxton Potts. “And it’s really only by luck and my privilege, that I’m not one of the statistics that we’re talking about.”

The updated Plan of Action showcased a disturbing trend of opioid deaths in Toronto and across the province. In 2021, there were 511 confirmed and 54 probable opioid toxicity deaths. The numbers are in line with what the city saw in 2020 but represent a 273 per cent increase from 2015.

In 2021, around 55 per cent of the deaths of people experiencing homelessness could be attributed to drug toxicity and 28 per cent of individuals who died from accidental opioid toxicity between April 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, were experiencing homelessness.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, said the dramatic increase of deaths can be associated with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

“We have an unregulated drug supply that is increasingly contaminated with unexpected drugs and toxic substances. And there’s been an ongoing need to expand harm reduction and treatment services for people who use drugs,” said Dr. de Villa. “Unfortunately COVID-19 has intensified this need because services have had to adapt to slow the spread of COVID 19.”

RELATED: Opioid-related deaths expected to claim 2,400 Canadian lives in 2022: Public Health Agency

Buxton Potts told CityNews they felt it was really important to speak out in light of what they are seeing on the streets of Toronto.

“It took me so long to get help that I needed and deserved because I didn’t think that people with addictions look like me,” they said. “And I really just wanted to create a face to this crisis that we’re seeing and hope that it makes it easier for people to take it seriously.”

They shared that their relationship with alcohol began in high school but didn’t start to get worse until after university.

“I found that as I was going through my adult life that my preoccupation with alcohol was getting more and more all encompassing, and it completely impacted decisions that I made. I dropped out of university. I didn’t take jobs. I started isolating from friends and eventually, alcohol wasn’t enough. And I started dabbling in other harder substances,” explained Buxton Potts. “And I was just very lucky that I had family that noticed that I was struggling.”

Buxton Potts said through their recovery, they found how privileged they were to have access to help.

“I am acutely aware of through the recovery work that I’ve done that my journey is really pretty rare and pretty unique because I have the support I did. I didn’t lose my housing. I had financial abilities to pay for private counseling. And that’s just not the case for so many people in our city,” said Buxton Potts.

“We talked a little bit in some of the recovery groups that I’m in that this idea of harm reduction is for poor people and treatment is for rich people.”

During the Board of Health meeting, they shared how much the work TPH has done in working to end the crisis means to them.

“I have lost many people that I care about to the epidemic and people that I love very deeply who worked with drug users. The last couple of years has been incredibly challenging for them, and they have lost too many people.”

“It’s just so critical. And I think when we really put our mind and focus our resources to a problem, we can make a huge difference. And we’re just seeing this problem get worse and I’m just so desperate for the same kind of focus to save people.”

When asked about the current situation in Toronto, Buxton Potts said there is a need for more long-term solutions.

“I think that situation is incredibly acute. I don’t come downtown without experiencing someone using in front of me. I’ve been on the TTC where the person next to me has been using and I want to believe that with proper care they could go somewhere safer.”

“We need to significantly invest in long term treatment beds. Twenty-one days in detox is not going to save someone… I mean it might save their life in the short term, but they need long term consistent care. I’m two and a half years sober and I still have regular care and that is what’s necessary, but it’s worth it,” explained Buxton Potts.

Some of the key action plan recommendations from TPH include pushing ahead with a drug decriminalization exemption from Health Canada.

British Columbia became the first jurisdiction to have possession of small amounts of hard drugs decriminalized in May. The exemption will begin on Jan. 31, 2023. Toronto submitted their application for an exemption on Jan. 4, 2022, and it is currently under review from Health Canada.

Dr. de Villa said she doesn’t have a sense of when they will have a decision about Toronto’s exemption but talks with Health Canada are ongoing.

“We’re quite pleased and having very productive conversations, I would say, with our Health Canada partners, and I look forward to continuing to keep you updated on how those conversations proceed,” de Villa told the meeting.

Health Canada would not comment on the status of the review but told CityNews, “each request for an exemption under the CDSA is carefully and thoroughly reviewed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant considerations, including evidence of potential benefits and risks or harms to the health and safety of Canadians.”

“Imprisonment is not a treatment plan. That does not work. It further impoverishes people,” said Buxton Potts. “I really want to press that we need to decriminalize all drugs because we don’t criminalize any other disease.”

Other key steps they hope to take include asking for the removal of the cap on Consumption and Treatment Services Sites by the Ontario government and an expansion of funds for harm reduction and treatment services for disproportionately impacted communities.

Buxton Potts added it’s very difficult to have to ask for the funding from other levels of government and not have that control in the hands of the municipality.

“You see something happening in the city you expect your city to be able to solve it. And so we are in this really difficult position, where I think the Board of Health is asking for the right things. We’re just not getting responses, and we’re not getting the resources necessary to implement it fast enough,” explained Buxton-Potts.

They added they are grateful for all those who are working to help those using drugs.

“There are people everyday building relationships with people who are using drugs who are losing their friends and their families every day at the same rate or higher than COVID and they don’t get nearly the same attention. So I just want to let them know that I see them and I love them and I’m one of you. And I really wish for healing and recovery for all those that want it.”

Ontario’s ministry of health did not respond to CityNews’ request for comment.