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Activist group opens unsanctioned overdose-prevention site in Toronto, despite Ford government freeze

A group of Toronto activists has opened an unsanctioned overdose-prevention site in defiance of Premier Doug Ford, saying that his government is putting lives at risk with its nearly two-week old order halting the establishment of new supervised drug-use sites.

The group is operating out of tents set up in a park in Toronto’s west-end Parkdale neighbourhood, an area of the city where police warned of a surge in overdose deaths during the first two weeks of August. The opening of the unsanctioned site comes as deaths from illicit opioids continue to increase in Canada’s largest city and Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have ordered a review of all supervised drug-use sites. Advocates have criticized the two-month old government’s move and argued the sites save lives.

The image of tents sheltering drug users in a city park is reminiscent of a similar situation in 2017, when the same group, the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, opened an unsanctioned site in the city’s Moss Park. The supervised drug-use site eventually secured federal approval and a permanent home after nearly a year of operation.

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Gillian Kolla of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society helps set up an overdose-prevention site in the Parkdale neighbourhood in Toronto on Monday.

Christopher Katsarov

Gillian Kolla, a co-ordinator with the group, said it had no plans to open the site until provincial Health Minister Christine Elliott’s office ordered a freeze on the opening of temporary overdose-prevention sites in a letter sent to health authorities on Aug. 10. A new prevention site, approved by the former Liberal government, had been scheduled to open on Aug. 13. The new unsanctioned location is in Beaty Boulevard Park, only a few blocks to the west of that planned facility.

“It’s really not a moment to be pausing the efforts. It’s really a moment where we have to act and make sure that an essential public health service is available to people who need it," said Ms. Kolla, who worked at the unsanctioned Moss Park site.

"It feels like we’re back to square one. … It’s really, really frustrating, after having worked so hard to get an actual framework for these [sites] in place in the province of Ontario, to be thrown back into the park again,” she said.

At the unsanctioned site, which opened on Monday afternoon, the tents have clean needles, other sterile drug-use supplies, the opioid antidote drug naloxone, oxygen and a defibrillator. Organizers say they never used the defibrillator at Moss Park – out of more than 9,000 injections supervised there, 251 people overdosed and all were brought back.

A number of supervised drug-use sites, both temporary and permanent, have opened across Canada as the opioid crisis has spread across the country. Fuelled by the availability of fentanyl, a cheap and powerful drug, deaths have soared over the past three years. In Ontario alone, more than 1,200 people died from overdoses in 2017.

While advocates argue the sites save lives by quickly reversing overdoses and providing help for drug users, Ms. Elliott and Mr. Ford have said they are reviewing whether the provincial government’s focus should shift away from supervised drug-use toward law enforcement and rehabilitation.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Elliott said that the Health Ministry expects no new sites to open during the freeze. “The Ministry is currently reviewing the latest data, evidence and current injection site models. Until this review is complete, we are requiring any injection sites that are not open to delay their operations. We fully expect all sites to comply,” spokeswoman Hayley Chazan said in an e-mail.

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Toronto Mayor John Tory supports supervised drug-use sites, but not in public parks, according to his spokesman, Don Peat. Mr. Peat added the mayor has asked Mr. Ford to finish the review quickly. “There should be no need for a site such as this in a park and the planned site could be open soon," he said.

Toronto police said in a statement that officers will “use the discretion which the law gives them” when it comes to the new site in Parkdale. Police did not close down the Moss Park site.

The two groups behind the Parkdale site, which also includes the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance, called on Ms. Elliott to reverse her decision, increase funding for supervised drug-use sites and advocate for the federal decriminalization of all drugs.

Liam Michaud, a volunteer at the site, said he was angry at the provincial government’s review. “Any stalling or delaying at this point has a literal body count,” he said.

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