The fate of Ontario’s safe injection and overdose prevention sites is in limbo as the province’s new Progressive Conservative government weighs whether to continue funding the facilities authorized by its Liberal predecessors.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday the government is reviewing evidence on the sites to see if they “have merit” and are worth continuing.
“We need to take a look at the evidence and understand what the experts are saying, so I want to hear that. The premier wants to hear that. He wants to know that continuing with the sites is going to be of benefit to the people of Ontario,” she said.
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“That’s what we’ve promised to do in everything since we’ve been elected, is making sure that programs that we’re investing in have value, and this is no different.”
The province will make a decision in the coming weeks on some of the sites that need their funding and approval renewed in order to stay open, including an overdose prevention site in London, Ont., the minister said. It will also eventually rule on the program as a whole, she said.
“We’re going to be looking at all of the sites, and we’re going to be making a decision based on the evidence relating to the individual sites as well as the situation overall,” she said.
Overdose prevention sites are temporary facilities approved by the province to address an immediate need in a community, while supervised consumption sites – also known as safe consumption or injection sites – are more permanent locations approved by the federal government after a more extensive application process.
During the spring election campaign, Premier Doug Ford said he was opposed to safe injection and overdose prevention sites, though his party says Ford has since committed to reviewing evidence on the issue.
Critics and advocates said shutting down the sites would be a major step back in fighting the opioid crisis that health officials say claimed nearly 4,000 lives across Canada last year.
“To put it bluntly, we’ll have a lot more dead people,” said Nick Boyce, director of the Ontario HIV & Substance Use Training Program.
There is overwhelming evidence from experts and from other jurisdictions around the world that supervised consumption sites save lives and help people dealing with addiction connect with other types of support when they are ready, he said.
That sentiment was echoed by the opposition parties, who questioned the need for the review.
The New Democrats said keeping the sites open would not only save lives, but also relieve pressure on local hospitals.
The Liberals, who approved the overdose prevention sites, said experts had already been consulted on the issue.
“I don’t know why they need to consult more experts, it’s all there,” Liberal interim leader John Fraser said. “It just comes back to the same theme with this government – there was no plan during the election, and there’s no plan right now, for those things that are important to families.”