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Health groups appeal to Ontario government to support overdose-prevention sites

In an open letter addressed to Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott sent Thursday, the groups said they are concerned about the health and welfare of people who use drugs in Ontario.

Christopher Katsarov

More than 120 health organizations and advocacy groups are calling on the Ontario government to reconsider its review of supervised drug-use sites, arguing that any delay in opening such sites will result in more preventable deaths during a crisis that has already killed thousands.

In an open letter addressed to Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott sent Thursday, the groups said they are concerned about the health and welfare of people who use drugs in Ontario following Ms. Elliott’s announcement earlier this month that the government would halt the opening of new overdose-prevention sites while it reviews the evidence on supervised drug-use sites to determine if they “have merit.”

The letter noted multiple reviews of the evidence have been done, finding the sites reduce overdose deaths and the sharing of drug-injecting equipment, increase access to addiction treatment and other health services, and benefit public order by reducing public injecting.

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“Rather than conduct an unnecessary review and delay expansion of these services, the Ontario government should work with community organizations and health providers to rapidly scale up these services," stated the letter, which was led by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. "Delays mean more preventable overdose deaths and new infections of HIV, hepatitis C and other illnesses that could be averted.”

Ms. Elliott was not available for an interview on Thursday. Her press secretary, Hayley Chazan, reiterated in an e-mail that the minister is “undertaking an evidence-based review, listening to experts, community leaders, community members and individuals who have lived through addiction to ensure that any continuation of drug-injection sites introduce people into rehabilitation and ensure those struggling with addiction get the help they need."

Janet Butler-McPhee, director of communications and advocacy for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said the letter was born out of dismay at the government’s direction.

“I think what’s frustrating about this is that what these overdose-prevention sites are meant to do is save lives,” she said. “You can’t put someone in treatment if they are dead.”

Other signatories on the letter include the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.

CMA president Gigi Osler said supervised drug-use sites are an important part of a comprehensive harm-reduction program that has already been shown by evidence to save both lives and health-care costs, while preventing the spread of disease.

“Our main message is that there is long-standing evidence, evidence in academic, scientific, peer-reviewed journals that already conclusively demonstrates that supervised consumption sites are effective and save lives,” Dr. Osler said.

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The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network also called for the government to make public all individuals and organizations being consulted as part of its review of the sites.

Supervised injection service has been available in Europe for decades. Canada’s first public supervised injection site, Insite, opened in Vancouver in 2003, and has logged more than 3.6 million visits since. According to Vancouver Coastal Health, which operates the facility, there have been about 48,800 clinical treatment visits (such as wound care), 6,440 overdose reversals and not one death.

There are nearly 30 official supervised drug-use sites offering services across Canada, and many more temporary overdose-prevention sites.

Last fall, federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor approved a streamlined process for provinces to more quickly establish temporary overdose-prevention sites, citing loss of lives to Canada’s overdose crisis.

Nearly 4,000 people died of opioid overdoses last year, according to data compiled by a federal task force.

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