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New generation of activists helping change attitudes about a persecuted minority — drug users

On a breezy afternoon this week, volunteers were setting up at Toronto’s latest overdose-prevention site – this one established in defiance of government authority.

They erected a white tent. They unfolded three card tables. They placed the same items on each table: small, round mirror; battery-powered lamp; alcohol wipes; bottle of hand sanitizer; needle-disposal unit. They filled syringes with naloxone, the life-saving drug that reverses the effects of overdose. They put out oxygen tanks. Oxygen, too, can be a lifesaver when a drug user’s respiration slows. By 6 p.m., they were ready to welcome visitors.

A scene like this is sure to make Doug Ford, Ontario’s new premier, uncomfortable. A place, right out in the open, deliberately designed and equipped for taking illegal drugs? The Progressive Conservative Leader has said he is “dead against” supervised drug-use sites. This month his government hit pause on a move to open three new overdose-prevention sites. It wants to determine whether the sites – fully supported by Toronto’s chief medical officer – “have merit.”

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One of them was to open in Parkdale, a low-income area in the west of central Toronto that has seen a rash of recent overdose deaths. So, rather than wait for the government review, a group of activists set up their tent and opened this unsanctioned site on King Street West. That must make Mr. Ford see red. He says the word “activist” like a curse. But Toronto is lucky to have dedicated, caring people like these, willing to donate their time and energy to saving lives. If this is activism, the city needs more of it.

Toronto, like the rest of the country, is suffering through what the medical officer calls an “opioid poisoning emergency.” More than 300 people died of overdose in the city last year, triple the number in 2013. In the course of 12 days this summer, seven people died of overdose in just one west-end police division. Drugs are taking far more lives than the upswing in shootings and stabbings that has afflicted the city.

Governments, at first, moved slowly to face the emergency. Activists goaded them into action. They have been goading for years.

It was activists in Vancouver’s rough Downtown Eastside who started needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread of AIDS and Hepatitis C. It was activists who opened Vancouver’s first unsanctioned supervised-injection site. That led to the opening of the first legal injection site in North America, Insite. Encouraged by Vancouver’s example, activists opened an unsanctioned site in a tent in Toronto’s Moss Park last summer. The city’s first official site, The Works, followed last fall.

Like the angry gay-rights leaders who pressured sluggish governments to invest in the fight against AIDS, this generation of activists is helping to change attitudes about a persecuted minority. They want us to see chronic users of illegal drugs not as ragged and dangerous subhumans but as individuals with mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. The least we owe them is a chance to survive.

Molly Bannerman, 40, was helping set up at the Parkdale site, located on a grassy strip on King near Roncesvalles Avenue. With a background in social work, she has been working for some time in harm reduction – limiting the dangers from drug use. So she was dismayed when the Ford government stopped the official Parkdale site from opening. “We know there is an acute crisis,” she says. “We know that people are dying. The Parkdale community can’t wait for another review.”

Ms. Bannerman rejects the notion that the site somehow encourages drug use. People are using anyway, like it or not. The point of the site is to give them a safe place to do it, with trained volunteers and a nurse standing by. If someone starts showing signs of overdosing, the crew at the tent will step in. They may rub the user’s sternum. They may bring out a device to check the user’s oxygen levels. If things look bad, they may administer oxygen from the tank or, if necessary, inject a syringe full of naloxone in the user’s thigh or arm. Scores of lives are being saved in this way.

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It may make Doug Ford frown, but it’s working. Toronto should thank this band of activists for leading the way.

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