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Illegal supervised drug-use site in Toronto to move indoors, granted government support

The illegal supervised drug-use site that volunteer activists have operated for nine months in Toronto’s east-end Moss Park is finally moving indoors and will be granted government support.

The Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance said on Friday that it would move the site into a nearby building by June. The operation will get funding from the provincial Health Ministry and a formal exemption from drug laws provided by the federal government, the group announced on Friday.

Supervised consumption sites provide space for drug users to shoot up under the watchful of eye of a nurse. Moss Park activists say they have reversed more than 200 overdoses since last August.

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Zoë Dodd, a lead activist with the site, would not say precisely where its new home would be because her organization wants to get in touch with its new neighbours first. But she said it is less than a block away from the park, which is near Queen Street East and Sherbourne Street.

“We want to talk to our community partners and let them know where we are,” Ms. Dodd said. “We want to work with the neighbourhood.”

She said up to 10 people will be hired to run the new site, but it will continue using volunteers with first-hand experience of drug use. The new site will operate in partnership with the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, which operates a legal supervised drug-use site in the east Toronto neighbourhood of Leslieville.

The move appeared to end a saga that began when the ad-hoc group of activists, many of them harm-reduction workers at other clinics, launched an illegal operation in tents in the park last summer, frustrated that the city had not then opened a single legal supervised site to deal with the growing opioid crisis.

Toronto Public Health officials have since opened or helped open four permanent ones. The city also has three temporary facilities called overdose-prevention sites, which are now allowed under new provincial rules. More are planned.

The Moss Park activists pressured governments at all levels to speed up their response to a crisis that killed more than 1,000 people last year as the drug supply becomes increasingly contaminated with high-powered fentanyl.

“I think we changed the landscape, and the response, both provincially and federally,” said Ms. Dodd, adding that her group would continue to advocate for more sites, as well as the legalization of drugs.

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Ontario will have an election on June 7, and Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, whose party is leading in polls, has said he is “dead against” supervised drug-use sites.

Mayor John Tory has said he supports harm-reduction services, but maintained that a park was not an appropriate long-term home. However, city officials tolerated the site for months, and police mostly took a hands-off approach after insisting that activists clean up any needles and shut down by 10 p.m.

A spokesman for the mayor said Friday’s announcement was good news.

Some local residents and business owners complained that the outdoor site, which was upgraded with a trailer last fall, was attracting more drug users and dealers to the area.

Rob Cesta, who runs the Drift Outfitters fly-fishing shop directly across from the park, welcomed the news that the site would be officially sanctioned and move indoors. He said he supports harm reduction but that since the illegal site was set up in park, he has noticed more needles and public urination in the area.

“We’ve seen people who have been completely off their face high dancing nearly naked in the streets, doing some pretty inappropriate things,” Mr. Cesta said. “So if it is in a contained area where they can mitigate that, and not expose them to harm, like getting run over by a streetcar or a truck, that would be great.”

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Talks with city officials to move the Moss Park site to the nearby Fred Victor Centre for the homeless fell apart last year. Public health officials then scrambled to help get federal approval for a new, legal injection site to open in that centre anyway, but it took months longer than promised. When it finally opened, Ms. Dodd and her team said the neighbourhood needed both sites.

She said on Friday that the high-needs area could still use the two services, and that her team of volunteers had established good relationships with some of the neighbourhood’s must vulnerable homeless drug users.

Councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs the city’s drug-strategy implementation panel, said the activists at the site drove a major change in the response to the crisis.

“These courageous activists willingly broke the law to save lives,” Mr. Cressy said. “And not only did they save lives, they changed federal and provincial policy.”

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