Safe Injection Sites

On August 12, a group of activists calling themselves the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance (THRA) opened an unauthorized pop-up safe injection site in the city’s Moss Park after a string of 3 opioid related deaths in the preceding 24 hours. The site offers information about drug use, sterile equipment, supervision by medical professionals and, if needed, overdose reversal medication to opioid users.

In May, Parliament approved Bill C-37 – streamlining the application and approval process for safe injection sites. Subsequently, in June, Health Canada approved 3 sites for Toronto to be opened in the fall upon completion of their construction. Despite recent progress, the THRA insisted that we, as a society, can’t wait any longer for the approved sites to open; with the number of opioid related deaths we are experiencing, we can’t afford to.

All evidence I have been able to find suggests that the activists at THRA are good people doing a good thing. However, if I was in a position of authority at Toronto City Hall, I would not have allowed their pop-up to remain operational; doing so sets a precedent that the lawful approval process is negotiable.

Toronto isn’t the first city in Canada to turn a blind eye to an unsanctioned safe injection site – Vancouver allowed one to remain open last year – and they, unfortunately, weren’t the last. The precedent set in Vancouver and Toronto gave activists in Ottawa the confidence to open a similar site just this past Friday. This is dangerous. We are dealing with the control of illicit drugs and the administration of health care here. Just because the evidence suggests that the existing pop-up sites are doing good doesn’t mean that the next one will. It shouldn’t be the job of our police forces to track down and supervise these sites to ensure that they are administering their services properly.

In response, Health Canada and Toronto Public Health opened an approved temporary safe injection site, announced they would speed up the opening of all three permanent sites, and widened the distribution of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone to public health staff, community agencies and first responders. This is a beautiful response and it wouldn’t have happened if the THRA hadn’t set up their pop-up in Moss Park; but that is as far as they should have gotten.