Toronto city councillors and harm reduction advocates are urging the Ontario government to reverse its decision to cut funding for some overdose prevention sites. They're also calling on Doug Ford's government to expand these sites as overdose deaths continue to climb across the province.
“When the services are taken away, I expect you will see deaths. And I don't think that’s hyperbole,” Toronto’s chief medical officer Eileen de Villa told reporters in an impassioned plea at a press conference on Monday.
“Given that we’re facing this defining health crisis of our time, now is not the time to be withdrawing services.”
The conference was called in response to an announcement on Friday by Ontario’s health ministry that two supervised drug consumption sites in Toronto would lose their funding, and that a third will be reviewed. A site in Ottawa will also lose its funding. The government also announced that 15 of the current 21 sites would be allowed to remain open. The approved sites would be renamed “consumption and treatment services” and would need to implement a host of requirements.
On Friday, Health Canada stepped in at the last minute with federal exemptions for the sites that faced closure, however they will remain open without provincial funding.
“These sites will serve as part of the government's plan to increase mental health and addiction services and supports,” the ministry said in a brief press release on Friday afternoon that listed the 15 sites it had approved.
The announcement was met with swift outcry from drug policy experts, politicians, and frontline workers who say the cuts will force people who use drugs to consume under riskier conditions and prevent them from accessing other services.
“We have life-saving healthcare programs that will be funded through bake sales. And so the choice here is very clear and that is for the province to continue funding and to scale up the funding,” Joe Cressy, councillor for Spadina-Fort York, said at the press conference.
Opioid-related overdose deaths have been rising across Ontario, as have deaths related to other drugs. In 2017, more than 1,200 people in Ontario died of opioid overdoses. During the first half of last year, there were more than 600 opioid-related deaths, up by at least 80 people from the same time the year before.
De Villa implored the provincial government to expand the number of overdose prevention sites and supervised consumption sites, saying that hundreds of overdose deaths have been reversed at this sites over the last year. She also called for the decriminalization of all drugs and the implementation of a safer drug supply, such as what has been pursued in Vancouver.
Other advocates said that the fewer than 50 sanctioned sites that currently operate across Canada are far below the 700 or so that should be opened in order to meet the demands of the country’s population.
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