Canada is in the grips of a health emergency. Nearly 4,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, many of them succumbing to drugs laced with deadly fentanyl. More than 300 people died of overdose in Toronto alone.
The city got a vivid reminder of the crisis when police warned this week that seven people had died over the course of 12 days in just one police district, 14 Division. As a police spokesman noted, it would be alarming to see seven deaths in 12 days across the whole city. This was in just one corner of town, the downtown west end.
Such a situation calls for swift, determined action. So what does the Doug Ford government do? It puts a freeze on opening overdose-prevention sites, one of the most promising life-saving strategies we have. Health Minister Christine Elliott says the provincial government will hold off on opening sites in St. Catharines, Thunder Bay and Toronto while it conducts a review to determine if they “have merit.” The Toronto site was to open in Parkdale, in the overdose-stricken west end.
The government’s decision flies in the face of all the available evidence about overdose prevention. A broad consensus has developed among health and medical officials that providing users with a safe place to use drugs is an effective way to save lives. Use poisoned drugs in a washroom, an alley, a car or an apartment and you may die before help can come. Use under supervision and rescue is at hand if things go wrong. Those who operate these sites say they are saving lives every day.
Why on earth would Mr. Ford want to stand in their way? The Progressive Conservative Leader said during this spring’s election campaign that he was “dead against” supervised drug-use sites. Stephen Harper leaned the same way when he was prime minister and opposed the expansion of supervised sites. So did Mr. Ford’s late brother Rob when he was running to be mayor of Toronto and criticized a downtown shelter for giving small amounts of wine and tobacco to homeless men.
The worry seems to be that supervised sites facilitate, condone or even encourage drug use. That is not what they are about at all. Those who run them are not saying: Go ahead, use all you want, we approve wholeheartedly. They are saying: If you must use, use safely. We will provide a clean, secure place. We will give you clean needles so you won’t get a disease from injecting. We will have naloxone on hand to reverse your overdose and prevent your sudden death if you take bad drugs. We may even give you a drug-testing kit so you can avoid taking bad drugs in the first place.
These are not meant to be reformatories. Those who run the sites don’t lecture users on the error of their ways. That would probably just drive them away. The aim is to be as welcoming and as helpful as possible to visitors, many of them damaged and struggling. Contact can sometimes be a step toward recovery. If clients are open to it, the sites can steer them to programs that may help them kick the habit, get treatment with a less harmful substitute drug, find housing or deal with mental-health issues.
As long ago as 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the Harper government and said the pioneering Vancouver supervised injection outfit Insite could stay open. “Insite saves lives. Its benefits have been proven,” wrote the chief justice at the time, Beverley McLachlin.
That was before fentanyl. It was before the drug-poisoning crisis that is filling emergency departments and morgues across the country. The case for supervised sites is even stronger now, in the midst of an epidemic that leaves seven dead in 12 days in just one part of Toronto.
Ms. Elliott says she only wants to make sure public money is being spent wisely, lives are really being saved and the supervised sites are helping drug users get into rehab. If that is really the intent, fair enough. Every new government deserves to review what the previous one was doing. But let the review be swift and let it rely on facts, not prejudice. Lives depend on it.