The Ontario government said it will not reverse a decision to stop the opening of new overdose-prevention sites despite critics saying the facilities save lives and Toronto police issuing warnings after a recent string of overdose deaths.
In a letter sent to Ontario’s health authorities on Friday, Health Minister Christine Elliott’s office put a hold on the opening of temporary overdose-prevention sites in St. Catharines, Thunder Bay and Toronto. A new site in Canada’s largest city was supposed to open on Monday in the west end, where seven fatal overdoses were recorded between Aug. 2-13.
Ms. Elliott ordered a freeze to the opening of any new supervised drug-use facilities until the end of September, when she expects to finish a review of existing sites and ask Premier Doug Ford to decide on their future. Many supervised drug-use sites have opened across Canada over the past three years as federal authorities have sped the approval of the facilities at a time when fatal overdoses have continued to increase. In Ontario alone, more than 1,200 people died from overdoses in 2017.
Mr. Ford said on Wednesday afternoon that he’s waiting for the results of Ms. Elliott’s review, but his government will be focused on rehabilitation and law enforcement. “This is a major, major crisis. It’s all hands on deck,” he said. “We have to work with our police to stop these drugs, these killer drugs. It’s terrible. I can assure you we will be listening."
The police issued a warning late on Tuesday to users to be cautious about a bad batch of drugs being circulated. Toronto police Superintendent Neil Corrigan would not specify where the fatal overdoses occurred, citing the continuing investigation into the distribution of the drugs. Investigators believe the deadly opioids consumed contained either fentanyl, a painkiller that can be 100 times more potent than morphine, or carfentanil, which is 100 times more toxic than fentanyl.
Police have stressed that people consuming drugs should avoid doing so alone. One of the ways to mitigate risk, they have noted, is to use at a supervised drug-use site. Supt. Corrigan declined to comment on the government’s decision on Wednesday, noting that his job is to save lives and prevent crime: “That’s what I’m focused on – not the politics of it.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory told reporters on Wednesday that he continues to support the sites because they save lives. He said there would be no solution to the city’s opioid crisis until federal and provincial authorities move to confront mental-health issues. Despite billions of dollars having been promised by the two senior levels of government for Ontario, little has so far been invested, he said. Toronto saw 303 people die from opioid overdoses last year.
“I was heartbroken to read that in one very short period, less than a week, we lost seven people to drug overdoses. If you think about that happening in any other context, if we lost seven lives, we would be heartbroken but we would also be angry,” Mr. Tory said. He called on the government’s review to end quickly “because lives are at stake.”
Mr. Tory’s comments came as downtown city councillor Lucy Troisi released a letter calling for a halt to any new supervised drug-use sites in her ward. She said crime and drug dealing had increased after two overdose-prevention sites opened.
Speaking with reporters on Monday, Ms. Elliott said her review would like to hear from people such as the downtown councillor. “Some people are concerned about having more safe supervised infection sites in the neighbourhood. I need to understand what their concerns are,” she said. "There are some who believe that they’re not as effective as perhaps other things could be.”
Ms. Elliott and David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, both declined a request for comment after the warning from Toronto police.
Nick Boyce, a spokesman for the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said the recent string of deaths highlights the need for more overdose-prevention services.
“Those seven deaths could have been prevented if those folks were not using alone, and if they had a place where they could’ve used in a safe environment and starting building connections with health-care workers,” he said.
Mr. Boyce said he does not know what the government’s review will entail or who will be approached. It’s hard to welcome the review, he said, when “everybody knows how strong the evidence already is.” He’s a member of an opioid emergency task force established by the previous government and said no one from that body has been consulted yet.
“There are lots of us that can point them in the right direction and provide that evidence," he said. "There’s just been no communication around it, so we really don’t know right now.”
France Gélinas, the NDP’s health critic, said in a statement on Wednesday that the party is urging the government to “act swiftly to declare a state of emergency to combat the growing opioid crisis.” She wrote that the Official Opposition is concerned the opioid situation could worsen with the government’s decision to freeze the opening of new sites.