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Police allow Toronto's first pop-up overdose prevention site to open

Harm reduction workers plan to supervise every day as people consume drugs in a tent set up in Moss Park.

by Rachel Browne
Aug 12 2017, 3:20pm

The Toronto police said on Saturday it will allow the city’s first drug overdose prevention pop-up to operate, despite it being unsanctioned by the government.

Harm reduction workers and nurses working with the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance opened the site, where people can consume drugs under supervision, at Moss Park amid fears they could face arrest or be forced to halt operations. Throughout the day, volunteers assembled a tent and brought in supplies such as water, 140 naloxone kits, and clean needles.

A number of Toronto police officers arrived in the afternoon, and spoke with the workers about the site, which they say is crucial to help curb the opioid overdose deaths that have been mounting in recent months. The officers expressed concerns about bylaw violations and public safety.

Harm reduction workers set up a Toronto's first pop up safe injection site. Photo by Rachel Browne, VICE News

But after discussions with site organizers Zoë Dodd and Matt Johnson, and obtaining the names of those would be working there, a Toronto police superintendent announced: “At the present time, I’m allowing them to remain.” Johnson showed the officers their naloxone kits — which the force has refused to carry on duty — and explained how drug users would use the services.

“We had to do this ourselves now in order to save lives,” said Dodd. “We’re in the middle of a public health emergency and people are dying all the time.” She added that the effort hopes to mirror similar unsanctioned overdose prevention sites that have opened in British Columbia since last year, as way to get around the onerous application process required in order to get a greenlight from Health Canada for supervised safe injection sites.

“We had to do this ourselves now in order to save lives.”

Even though the federal government has sanctioned three supervised injection sites for the city, they’re not expected to officially open until the fall. Harm reduction workers say they can’t wait any longer, and have been calling for such a pop-up site for about a year. At the end of July, four overdose deaths believed to be linked to fentanyl, and at least 20 other overdoses, prompted the Toronto police to issue a public safety alert.

After four o’clock, the workers had pitched a tent covered in light brown tarp. Inside, they hung lights shaped like stars and cleaned off tables and chairs. A 22-year-old drug user named Olympia Trypis held onto a framed portrait of her friend Brooklyn, who died of an overdose in June — her seventh one. Trypis said she herself has overdosed six times recently, and will use the overdose prevention site in order to stay alive.

Toronto police inspects a photo of Brooklyn, who died of an overdose in June. Photo by Rachel Browne, VICE News

“I usually have to call my friends or something, when I’m using,” she said. “But now I can come here on my own.”

Johnson said they chose Moss Park as it’s a common place for drug users to gather, and it’s also underserved by the harm reduction community. “A lot of overdoses and deaths have happened here recently,” he said.

The workers plan to work in shifts in order to run the site every day. They have raised thousands of dollars over the last week and hope to hire staff in the future.

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Zoe Dodd