Disaster averted. After months of anxiety about what Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government would do with the province’s overdose prevention sites, we have an encouraging answer.
Health Minister Christine Elliott announced Monday that the facilities – which are effectively pop-up safe-injection sites requiring less federal paperwork to open – will be allowed to stay open provided they meet new criteria around connecting drug users to treatment and other services.
Amidst an opioid crisis that killed almost 4,000 Canadians last year, including some 1,200 in Ontario, the news is welcome. The illegal-drug supply is thoroughly tainted with illicit fentanyl. Overdoses have skyrocketed as users unwittingly poison themselves. Giving addicted people somewhere to safely use drugs is a basic obligation for a compassionate society.
Still, Premier Doug Ford signaled during the spring election campaign that he was “dead against" legal drug-consumption venues. Kudos to Ms. Elliott for canvassing doctors, police, users and advocates before making her decision – it appears she allowed cooler heads to prevail.
Yes, it’s still too early for front line workers and opioid-users to exhale. It isn’t clear if the $31-million the Ford government has pledged for the program will be enough to support the beefed-up services the sites will have to provide. And while existing sites are invited to reapply for authorization to stay open, the PCs could use community consultations as a pretext for shutting some of them down.
Meanwhile, capping the number of sites at 21 seems arbitrary and could do real harm to underserved communities.
But it’s also worth stepping back and marveling at how quickly Canadian society has adapted to the need for supervised drug consumption. We now have more than two dozen full-fledged supervised injection sites across the country – up from just one in 2015 – and many more temporary overdose prevention sites. Even conservative politicians are now largely on board with the concept.
That shows the seriousness of our opioid crisis. But it also points to Canada’s humane, science-based response.