Harm reduction and healthcare workers in Ottawa are planning to open the city’s first unsanctioned overdose prevention pop-up site on Friday, VICE News has learned.
Volunteers with the newly formed Overdose Prevention Ottawa got together last week to discuss the effort, and have purchased a tent to set up at a location that’s yet to be decided.
The site follows the lead of a similar unsanctioned site opened by volunteers in Toronto earlier this month, and a number of unsanctioned sites that have been operating for months in British Columbia as a way around the intense federal application processes required to open a legal supervised injection site.
“It is definitely a strong signal being in the national capital,” Marilou Gagnon, a nurse and associate professor at the University of Ottawa who’s leading the overdose prevention site effort, said in an interview. “It’s a grassroots initiative that is about people coming together and trying to address a crisis. So the idea is to act quickly, with very low costs and simple means.”
“We will not wait and just stand by.”
Gagnon explained that the site will be run by a team of three people, and will aim to be run starting in the morning, when many drug users may face an increased risk for an overdose. The group has lawyers on call should law enforcement try to shut them down. So far, police in Toronto have allowed the pop-up site there to remain open.
“It is definitely a strong signal being in the national capital.”
Gagnon added that she and other colleagues are preparing a how-to guide for harm reduction workers in other cities looking to open more pop-up overdose prevention sites. That guide will be published online sometime next week.
“I know for a fact that more cities are preparing,” she said.
Gagnon says the group plans to continue operating the Ottawa site, even when the federally approved supervised injection site opens there in the coming months. Health Canada announced in July it had approved an application for a supervised injection site at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, although no specific opening date has been announced.
Harm reduction workers in Toronto have also said they couldn’t wait for the City to open its three federally approved safe injection sites, and took matters into their own hands by opening a pop-up site in the downtown Moss Park. That move prompted the City to act quickly and get expedited federal approval to open an interim safe injection site until the three sites are completed. While Mayor John Tory said he hoped the interim site would lead to the closing of the Moss Park pop-up, the workers there say they plan to keep it open as long as possible as it serves different purposes from the city-operated site.
According to the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance, anywhere from 12 to more than 25 people have used it every day since it opened. Workers have reversed at least five overdoses using naloxone kits and an oxygen tank. The group has also distributed more than 200 naloxone kits and other harm reduction supplies.
Though that site has been met by some opposition from a few people who live in the area, the group has been receiving thousands of dollars in donations, and support from some city councillors and the broader community.
“I know for a fact that more cities are preparing.”
Sarah Blyth of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver helped start the first pop-up sites in B.C. last year, and says she sees as many as 700 people a day using the site on the Downtown Eastside. She says she’s happy to see harm reduction workers take inspiration from her efforts, and that pop-up sites are cheap, easy, and effective solutions for communities grappling with overdoses and overdose deaths.
“We should be able to set up sites in an emergency like this,” Blyth said in an interview from Vancouver. “It’s not rocket science, it’s actually super simple.”
Health Canada has so far approved 17 applications for supervised injection sites, including the interim supervised injection site opened by the City of Toronto on Monday. However, there are 11 other applications pending from cities such as Edmonton and Victoria.
Earlier this month, non-profit group Ottawa Inner City Health announced a new project that would allow homeless drug users to consume prescription opioids, such as hydromorphone, under medical supervision as a means to deter the use of street drugs that might be contaminated. Currently a clinic in Vancouver is one of the only places in North America that runs such an opioid substitution program that allows drug users to inject prescription heroin.
At least 2,300 people in Canada died of an opioid overdose in 2016 alone.
Opioid deaths across Ontario have skyrocketed in recent years, with more than 734 dying of opioid-related overdoses in 2015, according to an April report by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network. It also found those opioid overdose deaths occurred among all sexes, ages, and income brackets.
In Vancouver, more people have died of overdoses so far this year than in all of 2016. A new report from the city found that 232 overdose deaths occurred there since January, with more than 400 such deaths expected to occur by the end of this year.
In May, federal health minister Philpott announced that at least 2,300 people in Canada died of an opioid overdose in 2016 alone.
“The death toll is worse than any other infectious epidemic in Canada, including the peak of AIDS deaths, since the Spanish flu that took the lives of 50,000 people a century ago,” she said.