The un­sanc­tioned safe in­jec­tion site housed for nine months in a tent gets a per­ma­nent space in­doors, but with­out de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of hard drugs ac­tivists say the opi­oid cri­sis can’t be beaten


Al­most a year af­ter it opened in a tent in Moss Park, the un­sanc­tioned over­dose preven­tion site set up by the Toronto Over­dose Preven­tion So­ci­ety and the Toronto Harm Re­duc­tion Alliance in Moss Park will be mov­ing into a new in­door fa­cil­ity in a re­pur­posed art gallery a few blocks away from the park this month.

The Moss Park OPS will op­er­ate with the “arm’s length” sup­port of South Riverdale Com­mu­nity Health Cen­tre, says SRCHC CEO Lynne Raskin, af­ter re­ceiv­ing six months’ fund­ing and a fed­eral ex­emp­tion to op­er­ate legally last month.

At a press con­fer­ence to mark the an­nounce­ment, Coun­cil­lor Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Drug Strat­egy, com­mended the Moss Park volun- teers, call­ing them “coura­geous ac­tivists” who stepped into a “flawed sys­tem” to save lives and helped change provin­cial and fed­eral pol­icy on safe in­jec­tion sites.

As a re­sult, re­sis­tance to­ward safe in­jec­tion sites is chang­ing at city hall, he says.

The site was opened last Au­gust amid the worst over­dose cri­sis in the city’s his­tory – some 187 over­dose deaths be­tween May and Oc­to­ber of 2017, more than dou­ble the 87 dur­ing the same pe­riod in 2016.

“We were so des­per­ate and so hurt,” says Peter Leslie, a harm re­duc­tion worker who’s been a vol­un­teer at the site since the begin­ning. “We needed to open right away.”

Be­fore his own bat­tle with drug use, Leslie was a para­medic. He says his time on the streets opened his eyes to the re­al­i­ties that many marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties face. “I couldn’t un­der­stand why all these peo­ple were home­less.”

Leslie says the ex­pe­ri­ence has trans­formed his views. Harm re­duc­tion, he says, is about more than just help­ing to make sure peo­ple in­ject safely. It’s also about re­mov­ing the stigma and shame as­so­ci­ated with drug use “to let peo­ple know that they can take con­trol... with sup­port and ed­u­ca­tion.”

The Moss Park site be­gan as a sym­bol of an­guish and frus­tra­tion. Over time it be­came em­blem­atic of the re­solve of vol­un­teers who showed up early to set up the tent ev­ery day and stayed late af­ter their shifts to pack it up again. It blew over in wind storms, and had no power or run­ning wa­ter.

In late Novem­ber, ahead of win­ter’s

plum­met­ing tem­per­a­tures, the prov­ince’s largest union, the Cana­dian Union of Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees (CUPE) On­tario, do­nated a heated trailer “in the ab­sence of govern­ment lead­er­ship.” Vol­un­teers en­dured record­break­ing tem­per­a­tures through­out the win­ter. Through it all, luck­ily no one died while us­ing the site.

“Rain, snow, Christ­mas, New Year’s, me­dia, po­lice,” says Sarah Ovens, a so­cial worker and one of the co­or­di­na­tors at the site, “what­ever ob­sta­cles we were fac­ing, peo­ple have just kept show­ing up here and say­ing, ‘We’re go­ing to fig­ure it out to­gether.’”

Many of the vol­un­teers who staff the site be­gan as users, slowly mak­ing the tran­si­tion into in­te­gral parts of the op­er­a­tion. They at­tended court for com­mu­nity mem­bers and wrote let­ters of sup­port to peo­ple in prison. They raised money – over $100,000 – to con­tinue their ef­forts, worked tens of thou­sands of hours and re­versed hun­dreds of over­doses.

But with­out de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of hard drugs, ac­tivists say the opi­oid cri­sis can’t be beaten.

* * * Zoë Dodd, a driv­ing force be­hind the Moss Park site, never imag­ined she would be in a room full of po­lice chiefs talk­ing about the drug war and its as­so­ci­ated trauma when the ef­fort be­gan.

Yet there she was on the heels of the Moss Park fund­ing an­nounce­ment, at the On­tario As­so­ci­a­tion of Chiefs of Po­lice (OACP) two-day con­fer­ence on the over­dose cri­sis. Just as per­spec­tives at city hall seem to be chang­ing, so too are those of the lead­ers in polic­ing.

Chief Bryan Larkin of the Water­loo Re­gional Po­lice Service, who serves as pres­i­dent of the OACP, says the mag­ni­tude and com­plex­ity of the opi­oid cri­sis spurred the need for the con­fer­ence. And while harm re­duc­tion and safe in­jec­tion sites are still po­lar­iz­ing is­sues in the polic­ing com­mu­nity, Larkin says the con­fer­ence helped fa­cil­i­tate im­por­tant di­a­logue be­tween groups of­ten at odds on the is­sue.

“We’ve never sub­scribed to the be­lief that we can ar­rest our way out of the opi­oid cri­sis,” says Larkin.

At the same time, he adds, the pol­icy mov­ing for­ward may be to put even more em­pha­sis on go­ing af­ter drug traf­fick­ers.

Canada al­ready has manda­tory min­i­mums for traf­fick­ing, pro­duc­ing or im­port­ing drugs. Re­cently, po­lice forces across the coun­try have in­creas­ingly been lay­ing man­slaugh­ter charges against deal­ers al­leged to have sold drugs tainted with fen­tanyl.

But Dodd, who has seen the ef­fects of crim­i­nal­iza­tion first-hand – children taken from their homes, home­less­ness and prison – says stricter en­force­ment would be a mis­take.

“If any­thing, [po­lice] need to take the brunt of the blame for why we’re in an over­dose cri­sis.”

De­crim­i­nal­iza­tion was one fo­cus of dis­cus­sion at the con­fer­ence, which looked at dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, like Por­tu­gal’s de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of il­licit drug use and the re­sult­ing de­crease in over­dose deaths.

Natalie Kal­lio, who runs the safe in­jec­tion site at South Riverdale, also spoke at the OACP con­fer­ence. She says that when po­lice make a big bust, it can ac­tu­ally have an ad­verse ef­fect on the kind of drugs that end up in users’ hands, as deal­ers who favour profit over safety end up cut­ting more of their sup­ply with po­ten­tially deadly in­gre­di­ents, like fen­tanyl. “We know that it’s just go­ing to make the shit on the streets that much worse.”

The idea that re­mov­ing some of the sup­ply makes drugs more dan­ger­ous has back­ing in re­search. Ken­neth Tup­per, a di­rec­tor at the BC Cen­tre on Sub­stance Use, was the prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor of a re­cently pub­lished re­port from a drug check­ing pro­gram, which found that 88 per cent of opi­oids tested pos­i­tive for fen­tanyl.

“It’s Rus­sian roulette,” says Tup­per. “Black mar­kets are un­reg­u­lated, un­con­trolled – it’s a complete buyer-be­ware sit­u­a­tion.”

In Toronto, re­searcher Dan Werb is lead­ing a study with St. Michael’s Hos­pi­tal, the Cen­tre for Ad­dic­tion and Men­tal Health and three of the front­line safe in­jec­tion sites to pro­vide users with de­tailed in­for­ma­tion on the break­down of their drugs.

Know­ing a par­tic­u­lar sup­ply’s com­po­si­tion will al­low re­searchers to tai­lor ad­vice to in­di­vid­ual users on how to use safely. The fen­tanyl test­ing strips cur­rently avail­able are limited – they can tell some­one if there is fen­tanyl, but not how much or what else might be in their sup­ply. Werb hopes to have the project launched be­fore the end of the year.

The topic of bad drugs keeps com­ing up among Moss Park vol­un­teers. Ovens says: “There’s still a lot to do and de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion is what we’re ul­ti­mately fight­ing for. We can turn our at­ten­tion to that next.”

“We’ve never sub­scribed to the be­lief that we can ar­rest our way out of the opi­oid cri­sis.”

Many of the vol­un­teers at the Moss Park over­dose preven­tion site be­gan as users.

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