Toronto’s top doctor is calling for the opening of three safe-injection sites at existing health facilities downtown, a move which would follow Vancouver and join the list of cities around the globe giving addicts a safe place to do drugs.
“Research shows that supervised injection services save lives, reduce drug overdoses and limit the spread of blood-borne diseases,” Medical Officer of Health Dr. David McKeown said Monday.
He noted the city is facing a record number of fatal overdoses — 206 in 2013 — that have jumped in the last decade.
McKeown is recommending councillors on the city board of health give the green light to setting up community consultations and strategizing on how the “small scale” sites would work, with the results going into a report due in July.
The safe-injection sites would be located inside existing facilities along a roughly 7-kilometre stretch of downtown: the Central Toronto Community Health Centre at Queen and Bathurst streets, the public health office at Victoria and Dundas and the South Riverdale Community Centre.
All three centres already run harm-reduction programs providing clean needles, and McKeown’s report says letting users shoot up will “reduce the community impact” of drug use, such as discarded needles.
If approved, Toronto will join Ottawa and Montreal, which are also looking to set up the facilities.
The sites allow people to take illicitly obtained drugs while supervised by nurses, in order to prevent overdoses and the spread of diseases.
At the moment, there are only two safe-injection sites in Canada — both in Vancouver — while similar facilities exist in Australia and several European countries.
Whereas the Vancouver sites are both in the city’s downtown east-end, which has a heavy concentration of intravenous drug users, McKeown said Toronto usage is “much more distributed across the city” and is better met be embedding injection sites inside existing health centres.
Mayor John Tory said “clearly we have to do something” about the overdoses. He said the consultations will allow all parties to air their views and let the city make what he hopes will be a “non-emotional” decision factoring in public health and safety concerns.
Councillor Joe Cressy, whose ward would include one of the sites, said the evidence is clear: “These programs will save lives.”
“People who use drugs do not travel to use. You use drugs where you are,” Cressy said, defending the proposed locations, including the west-end facility that sits amidst glitzy retail stores, and the health office within steps of popular Yonge-Dundas Square.
The West Queen West BIA said it’s open to the notion of a site in their neighbourhood.
“We’re going to proceed cautiously but we think it’s an important idea for the city,” said executive director Rob Sysak, adding the CAMH mental hospital is already down the street.
“We’re West Queen West. We’re the second-coolest neighbourhood in the world and we’re unique for what’s in the area. We learn to adapt.”
Cressy said that if approved by council a request would be made to the federal health minister seeking an exemption from the drug laws in order to open the facilities.
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said city health officials should have held consultations before making their recommendations.
He said injection sites belong in hospitals, not residential-commercial areas.
“This… will have a negative impact on any community on which it is imposed,” Mammoliti said in a statement.
Health Minister Jane Philpott applauded McKeown’s proposals for “starting the discussion” and called on Toronto and other municipalities considering the sites “to consult as widely as possible.”
She said in a statement the Liberal government supports “evidence-based policy” and that it’s clear injection sites save lives, prevent infections and give drug users a “non-judgmental way to access our healthcare system.”
Philpott has given approval to the second Vancouver site, and in an interview with iPolitics last month said she expected more applications for injection sites.
This isn’t the first time Toronto health officials have breached the topic.
In a 2013 report which called for a pilot program and criticized the then-Conservative government’s consultation requirements for opening a safe-injection site — measures critics said were purposefully hard to meet.
The rules came after the Supreme Court of Canada slapped down the former Harper government’s attempt to shutter Vancouver’s Insite program, which has operated since 2003.
With files from David Shum